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Jul 9, 2005 6:34 am


Dewey/Bourne and Burke/McDaniel ...



Too briefly, I mentioned the discussion between Tim Burke and Caleb McDaniel yesterday. It's the Cliopatriarchs at our best. [ed.: Notice how I neatly claim their work as"ours." When they perform badly, I won't do that.] Perhaps it is best read as Burke,"Soldiering On," and McDaniel in comments, McDaniel,"Some Doubts," and comments, and Burke,"Violence and Agency," and comments. Beyond the comments at each post, they draw attention from The ElfinEthicist, Newsrack Blog, and verbum ipsum.

This is an important discussion, reminding me in moments of that between John Dewey and Randolph Bourne when the United States entered World War I. If you've not read Bourne's"War is the Health of the State," do so. Even though left unfinished at Bourne's tragic death in 1918, it is a major document in American intellectual history. I am never so close to my libertarian friends, as when I read Bourne. He makes me want to dissociate myself from the war machine that feeds the"health of the state" and wonder if Burke's apparent denial of a right of divorce from modernity means that I must inevitably succumb to the war machine that feeds national maws. One important difference between the Burke/McDaniel discussion and the Dewey/Bourne discussion is that the latter responded to conventional warfare between states, whereas Burke/McDaniel are confronted by a"war on terrorism," in which, whatever the propaganda machine may tell you at any given moment, the enemy is not embodied in a state. In the end, however, I'm not sure that the difference is crucial to the terms of the argument.

In an odd sort of way, Burke's eloquent conclusion --

As a technology of modern power, violence has done all sorts of things. Whatever else it is, it is not mere or simple futility or destruction. Name me a thing you like about the contemporary world and I'll wager that violence–state violence, collective violence, individual violence–played a generative role in producing it.
– only confirms McDaniel's skepticism:
Have three years of war solved the difficulties of our time? Manifestly, no. Have three millennia of war brought us closer to peace? Will committing acts of violence that will be displayed on television screens in our enemies' homes help prevent these horrible scenes from being displayed on our television screens? Not if our enemies are anything like us, and they are.
As Burke says, only the abolition of our enemies puts an end to it. Somehow, I doubt they will be"abolished". All the violent power of modernity hasn't even yet abolished slavery. Burke's confirmation of McDaniel's conclusion suggests that we are condemned to march toward progress through an endlessly violent future. That makes me shudder. It isn't what we wanted for either our children or the children of our enemies.

I started to say,"But, Tim, what of the civil rights movement? I like much of what it achieved – non-violently." And he could rightly answer me that my non-violent comrades often went armed, that much of its achievement was due to the public enactment of violence – sometimes intentionally displayed for a national audience in television coverage of the confrontations in Birmingham and Selma, for example – and that its achievements were confirmed by the coercive power of the state. In a sense, the problem is that non-violence is symmetrically dependent on violence. We apparently have to know war in order to recognize peace.

Behind Randolph Bourne's remarkable essay,"War is the Health of the State," lay William James widely influential pre-World War I essay,"The Moral Equivalent of War." Like Burke, James recognized that state warfare was not a wholly negative thing. It summoned citizens to make noble sacrifices, for example. One of the most disturbing things about the Bush administration's conduct of the"war on terror" is the maldistribution of sacrifice. Why have my taxes not been raised? Why do our politicians not rise to a re-enactment of the draft? Short of those two things, I remain unconvinced that this administration and this nation have the courage for this war. Unlike Burke, however, James did not attribute all the blessings of modernity to the generative power of violence. The challenge of the twentieth century, he argued, was to develop a non-violent"moral equivalent of war" that summoned men and women to ennobling, self-sacrificial service to others. As McDaniel suggests, the twentieth century failed rather badly at it. There were some paltry efforts at it, like the Peace Corps, but the twentieth century studied war like no other century in human history. I want something other than that for our children – both our enemies' children and our own.

Thanks to wood s lot for the reminder. He also recommends: Christopher Phelps,"Bourne Yet Again: Errors of Genealogy," New Politics, Summer 1998.




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Caleb McDaniel - 7/12/2005

Alan, I thank you for this exchange and your patience. Rather than keep it going at full throttle, I'll simply say that the democratic societies worth saving and defending (if necessary, you argue, by war) all rest fundamentally on the idea that human beings are capable of improvement and that the world can be better than it is.

Surely you think that arguments based on how we would like the world to be is what makes democratic idealism so preferable to autocratic conservatism, which more or less accepts the way the world is and tries to keep it that way, so long as "that way" has me and my friends on the top of the heap.


Alan Allport - 7/11/2005

Re: World War II, I agree with Ralph that it can be turned either way in arguments like these. That fighting it was better than not fighting it is a hard claim to refute. But surely not having to fight it would have been optimal, and perhaps that would have been possible had World War I not been fought. I realize now I'm making a counterfactual argument, but it's hard to say who wins such a debate. You say: imagine what would have happened if World War 2 had not been fought. I say: imagine what would have happened if World War 1 had not been fought.

Well, you're welcome to do so (and certainly many others have done so before), but I don't think that the pacifist position emerges particularly well even from that, conventionally less testing case. If a chauvinistic autocracy like the Kaiser's Germany had been able to secure military hegemony over the whole of the European continent in 1914 then I would submit to you that the result would have been worse than the historical outcome - yes, worse than the nine million deaths that directly resulted from the war, and perhaps even worse than the much more speculatively associated deaths that followed in later wars (which I don't think are causally harnessed to WWI all that convincingly, but that's a story for another day). That might seem like an even more audacious claim than the ones that pacifists make; perhaps, and had I more time I would go into it in more detail. But as a final comment (and this will have to be a final comment), I would say that the basic problem that the pacifist has is that he is at heart making his argument based on how he would like the world to be, whereas the non-pacifist is making his on how the world is in the here-and-now. There is an abstraction to the pacifist case that has great psychological power, and perhaps even a claim to real nobility of spirit, but which is ultimately founded on an attractive fantasy.


Caleb McDaniel - 7/11/2005

I can see the force of your line of reasoning, Alan. But I still think that when you are pointing to "real-life examples in which violence worked," your assessment of their success depends on a counterfactual assessment of what would have happened if non-violence had really been tried. And I still think that there are reasons why a cost-benefit analysis is problematic when offered in favor of violence, especially when the costs of war are so manifestly high, and the costs of total pacifism are so speculative. That's why your argument has such force, because you leave your interlocutor to imagine a vague but unimaginably horrible "what might have been" if pacifists had their way, without having to specify or add up those costs in any other than a counterfactual way. The unknown is always more terrifying than the known, perhaps.

Re: World War II, I agree with Ralph that it can be turned either way in arguments like these. That fighting it was better than not fighting it is a hard claim to refute. But surely not having to fight it would have been optimal, and perhaps that would have been possible had World War I not been fought. I realize now I'm making a counterfactual argument, but it's hard to say who wins such a debate. You say: imagine what would have happened if World War 2 had not been fought. I say: imagine what would have happened if World War 1 had not been fought. And so on back to the beginning of time and the first war. We're left with duelling counterfactuals. I'm beginning to wonder if the fact that arguments about war so often end up in this kind of a stalemate suggest that weighing counterfactual costs and benefits for war leads to a dead end, or at least a circular discussion.

Perhaps that's because arguments about war and violence so often run up against incompatible fundaments. In the end, the pacifist will finally want to say that there is a categorical moral imperative not to kill human beings. And the non-pacifist will want to reject that such moral imperatives exist and argue instead for a utilitarian accounting of our moral obligations. When we argue about war, we're really arguing about much more, and perhaps that's why this question is so hard to resolve to either party's satisfaction.


Alan Allport - 7/11/2005

From cases where non-violent efforts have been supplemented with violence, we could just as easily infer that the violence would not have "worked" without the organized non-violence. Why don't you read the evidence that way, unless you are placing a heavier burden of proof on the advocate of non-violence than the advocate of violence? I could say, for instance, that no apparently just war has "worked" that has not also included vigorous non-violent efforts by pacifists. Does this entitle me to invalidate all of your evidence that violence works?

No, I don't think it does. Because I think I can suggest several real-life examples in which violence worked - in the sense that it produced an outcome preferable to that which would have resulted from its absence - and that the non-violent activity of pacifists in those struggles was at best of marginal significance. Fighting the Second World War was preferable to not fighting it, in that the result for the world was better than submission (though I don't doubt that in the short term the body-count would probably have been lower if the West had capitulated to Hitler). To counter this by saying that WWII was costly and that it produced undesirable results is simply to suggest that (a) a cost-free alternative was available, and (b) that the perfect should be made the enemy of the good (or the least-bad).


Alan Allport - 7/11/2005

The logic of your argument would then suggest, not only that non-violence had no victory in the past century, but that it is the impossible for non-violence to claim _any_ victory because it is only the pale reflection of violence.

What I meant was that non-violence, purely applied, cannot claim to have been a historical success as an alternative to violence, as opposed to an ancillary to it. I don't deny that non-violence can be a useful tactical tool in certain situations (though as Orwell pointed out, its use against fanatics or dicatorships is severely limited - and it's fanatics and dictatorships that are our biggest problem, surely). But I don't think history provides us with a single example of an undiluted non-violence movement accomplishing anything. Let me also make it clear (perhaps this is too obvious to need pointing out, but let me get it on the record anyway) that I'm certainly not suggesting that violence alone is the necessary and sufficient response to every political problem, or that its misapplication doesn't sometimes cause more damage than it sets out to avoid. I diagree that war is not the answer in many situations, but I can accept that it's often not a good enough answer on its own.


Caleb McDaniel - 7/11/2005

Alan, I have doubts about the pragmatism of pacifism too, but I think you're holding pacifism to a higher standard of "working" than war. War doesn't work either, if by working you mean that it brings an end to aggressive violence.

If you think every successful experiment of non-violence owes its success to violence, then you're also saying that there has never really been an experiment of non-violence. Whatever evidence we have that non-violence doesn't "work" is therefore counterfactual, whereas we have plenty of factual evidence about the consequences of violence.

From cases where non-violent efforts have been supplemented with violence, we could just as easily infer that the violence would not have "worked" without the organized non-violence. Why don't you read the evidence that way, unless you are placing a heavier burden of proof on the advocate of non-violence than the advocate of violence? I could say, for instance, that no apparently just war has "worked" that has not also included vigorous non-violent efforts by pacifists. Does this entitle me to invalidate all of your evidence that violence works?

It's hard to be precise about what "working" would mean, and for just that reason I think that the pragmatic question cannot be the only one we ask when making moral judgments. As Jonathan suggests, pacifists don't just question whether war works, they question whether morality is really just a matter of running a cost-benefit analysis of two different choices. They question that utilitarian logic altogether, but that doesn't mean they can't also make arguments on utilitarian grounds as a rhetorical gambit.


Ralph E. Luker - 7/11/2005

But Alan, in your reply to Caleb, aren't you repeating what I'd said about a symbiotic relationship between violence and non-violence -- that is, that we appear to know what peace is, only because we know what war is? The logic of your argument would then suggest, not only that non-violence had no victory in the past century, but that it is the impossible for non-violence to claim _any_ victory because it is only the pale reflection of violence.


Alan Allport - 7/11/2005

Alan and David, I don't mean to be simplistic, though I may be, but it does seem to me that the horrors represented by both the Nazi regime in Germany and the Communist regime in the Soviet Union are very unlikely, apart from the prior experience of the horror of World War I.

There's two rather different questions of causality bundled together there. That the Russian Revolution was caused by WWI seems pretty indisputable, but that leaves open the question of whether or not something resembling it would have taken place in Russia anyway. As for Hitler's rise to power and WWII, I don't accept the argument that WWI made either inevitable. Put very (very, very) crudely, the Great Depression was the necessary trigger for both, and that wasn't made inevitable by WWI either.


Alan Allport - 7/11/2005

If you think that pacifism on its face entails greater sacrifices than war has entailed in the twentieth century, you must have in mind some known consequence of pacifism would be certainly greater than tens of millions of deaths, genocide, and environmental catastrophe.

Well, there is the possibility that pacifism as strategy for resisting the aggression of others simply doesn't work. That strikes me as a consequence with some pretty vast and awful implications that would overshadow even the weighty legacy that you mention above. (For the record, I don't accept that any of the so-called successes of historical non-violence practiced throughout the last century were anything of the sort, because none of them achieved their goals without the use of violence by others.)


Jonathan Dresner - 7/11/2005

Just to supplement what Caleb said, I find that most dedicated pacifists are pretty aware of the costs of their committment. Yeah, it's a qualified statement, but I've really only engaged quite committed and thoughtful pacifists in serious discussions; I'm sure there are others out there, but I don't really know them.

When you cite the probably costs of pacifistic responses to aggression, most serious pacifists would respond "yes, but it's better than lowering oneself and contributing to future violence." And Caleb is right: there are costs to war, as well, beyond expenditures.


Ralph E. Luker - 7/11/2005

David, I agree that German anti-Semitism and Russian Communism ante-dated WWI. I think their rise to power is unlikely without it.


David Silbey - 7/11/2005

My sense rather is that both world wars were caused by underlying factors, rather than one leading to the other (i.e. not wwI -> wwII), factors such as the reunification of Germany and the great economic, demographic, and political imbalance that caused in central Europe, the industrial revolution, the rise of Social Darwinism and Nationalism, and so on.

Whether the form of World War II was shaped by World War I is a more difficult question. It's certain possible to argue, though I will note that German anti-Semitism predated Hitler by centuries and that the Bolsheviks existed in a Russia in revolutionary ferment well before 1914-1918.


Caleb McDaniel - 7/10/2005

What would pacifists have to do to "think seriously about what sacrifices its use as a form of conflict resolution would entail"? I think most pacifists are aware that it would entail deaths, but so does war.

If you think that pacifism on its face entails greater sacrifices than war has entailed in the twentieth century, you must have in mind some known consequence of pacifism would be certainly greater than tens of millions of deaths, genocide, and environmental catastrophe.


Ralph E. Luker - 7/10/2005

Alan and David, I don't mean to be simplistic, though I may be, but it does seem to me that the horrors represented by both the Nazi regime in Germany and the Communist regime in the Soviet Union are very unlikely, apart from the prior experience of the horror of World War I. I can't prove that, of course; but I would not make my judgment simply based on comparisons of casualty figures in World War I and WWII.


David Silbey - 7/10/2005

I agree with Dr. Allport. The casualty rate in World War I is pretty typical of industrialized mass warfare in the main theater of operation. World War II was much less sanguinary for the British and French because the main German effort was in the east, against the Soviets. Casualty rates there were just as bad as anything in World War I, if not worse.


Alan Allport - 7/10/2005

I take the still fairly unfashionable view that WWI was not, from the Franco-British perspective anyway, a futile war, and that its outcome, although (to put it mildly) far from ideal, was certainly not the worst of all possible outcomes - and that includes the outcome of failing to resist Germany in 1914.


Alan Allport - 7/10/2005

For the record, I'm not a pacifist; I think pacifism offers alternative ways of thinking about conflicts and conflict resolution that we should take seriously, though.

Fair enough, though I think one of the problems with pacifism is precisely that its adherents don't think seriously about what sacrifices its use as a form of conflict resolution would entail. It's like that bumper sticker, war is not the answer: I always want to ask the people who drive around with those things, never mind the answer; what do you think the question is?


Jonathan Dresner - 7/9/2005

You should add Jason Kuznicki's The Absurdity of Terrorism to the list. In addition to being a very good statement in itself of the revolutionary fallacy of the "decisive strike" or "rallying attack" being a useful terrorist strategy, Caleb's engaging him in comments.


Jonathan Dresner - 7/9/2005

I've heard better answers than Gandhi's (honestly, it's not a high standard, however much I respect the man otherwise) to the question of pacifistic responses to the Holocaust. Mostly the problem of imagining a pacifistic response to an aggression like Hitlers is the problem of counterfactuality: you have to also imagine a very different society for the US, UK, USSR or other opponents of Hitler with a vigorous and politically powerful pacifist (not isolationist) movement.

Gandhi is right in one sense: there would be deaths. But there would also be sabotage, persuasion, disciplined mass movements, interference with military operations, etc. Pacifism is too often confused with passivity, because that's the often the only way to implement it as an individual in the face of violence. But in groups it would be different.

For the record, I'm not a pacifist; I think pacifism offers alternative ways of thinking about conflicts and conflict resolution that we should take seriously, though.


Ralph E. Luker - 7/9/2005

Alan, I've long thought that World War II presents the most difficult challenge to any reasoning toward pacifism. World War I, on the other hand, is in many ways the strongest case in its favor. There's something about the logic of "if no I, then no II" that persuades me. In other words, we've pursued the logic of war rather thoroughly, with little to show in favor of it. As for the question to Gandhi, it seems to me that war gave us the worst of both worlds: both the extermination of the Jews and millions of non-Jewish deaths in war, fought not to save the Jews.


Alan Allport - 7/9/2005

Parts of this conversation brought to mind George Orwell's famous Reflections on Gandhi, which have I think a particular relevence to the idea of 'rejecting' war with our enemies today:

"Gandhi's attitude was not that of most Western pacifists. SATYAGRAHA, first evolved in South Africa, was a sort of non-violent warfare, a way of defeating the enemy without hurting him and without feeling or arousing hatred. It entailed such things as civil disobedience, strikes, lying down in front of railway trains, enduring
police charges without running away and without hitting back, and the like. Gandhi objected to "passive resistance" as a translation of SATYAGRAHA: in Gujarati, it seems, the word means "firmness in the truth". In his early days Gandhi served as a stretcher-bearer on the
British side in the Boer War, and he was prepared to do the same again in the war of 1914-18. Even after he had completely abjured violence he was honest enough to see that in war it is usually necessary to take sides. He did not--indeed, since his whole political life centred round a struggle for national independence, he could not--take the sterile and dishonest line of pretending that in every war both sides are exactly the same and it makes no difference who wins. Nor did he, like most Western
pacifists, specialize in avoiding awkward questions. In relation to the late war, one question that every pacifist had a clear obligation to answer was: "What about the Jews? Are you prepared to see them exterminated? If not, how do you propose to save them without resorting to war?" I must say that I have never heard, from any Western pacifist, an honest answer to this question, though I have heard plenty of evasions, usually of the "you're another" type. But it so happens that Gandhi was asked a somewhat similar question in 1938 and that his answer is on record in Mr. Louis Fischer's GANDHI AND STALIN. According to Mr. Fischer, Gandhi's view was that the German Jews ought to commit collective suicide, which "would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler's violence." After the war he justified himself: the Jews had been killed anyway, and might as well have died significantly. One has the impression that this attitude staggered even so warm an
admirer as Mr. Fischer, but Gandhi was merely being honest. If you are not prepared to take life, you must often be prepared for lives to be lost in some other way. When, in 1942, he urged non-violent resistance against a Japanese invasion, he was ready to admit that it might cost several million deaths."