In Review :: Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea

The History of a Dangerous Idea

by Mark Kurlansky, with a foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Modern Library, 2006, 203 pages, $14.00

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In Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, best-selling author Mark Kurlansky describes the movements—often religious in origin—that have denounced war in favor of active nonviolent resistance. He details their history, celebrates their victories, and underscores the discipline they have shown in the face of repression.

From the war resistance of the early Christians to the celebrated struggles of Gandhi, Kurlansky’s stories show the stalwart determination nonviolence requires. Its practitioners must confront their opponents armed with nothing but their courage, solidarity, and tactical creativity.

Especially courage. Early Christians who refused to join the army risked jail or torture at the hands of the Romans. During World War II, the U.S. government imprisoned so many conscientious objectors that they made up a sixth of the federal prison population. Gandhi’s followers braved British gunfire during peaceful strikes and protests, while members of the American civil rights movement, who borrowed many of Gandhi’s methods, took repeated beatings at the hands of police.

Under this pressure, many nonviolent activists turned their backs on their principles. Examples include William Lloyd Garrison, an abolitionist and advocate of peaceful resistance who later embraced the Civil War, and members of the Students for a Democratic Society, who resorted to bombings under the leadership of the Weathermen.

Kurlansky sees these lapses as tactical mistakes that prolonged the problems they were supposed to solve. “History teaches over and over again that a conflict between a violent and a nonviolent force is a moral argument,” he writes. “If the nonviolent side can be led to violence, they have lost the argument and they are destroyed.”

The primary appeal of nonviolence, then, is its effectiveness. Against all conventional wisdom, Kurlansky argues convincingly that the most successful campaigns in the battle for American independence were the boycotts and acts of civil disobedience, like the Boston Tea Party, that took place before the shooting war. “It seems quite possible,” he reasons, “that British withdrawal could have been achieved by continuing protest and economic sabotage.”

He offers similar views on the American Civil War, World War I, and even World War II. “More Jews were saved by nonviolence than by violence,” he argues. In Denmark, for instance, the government in 1943 refused to enact anti-Semitic legislation, hid its entire Jewish population, and protected 1,500 foreign Jews, while its population engaged in strikes and destroyed German trains. Jews in France and the Netherlands, countries where the resistance was largely armed, fared worse. Meanwhile, U.S. bombers failed to disrupt concentration camps, because the American government believed they were of no military value.

These lessons from history not only show how great a resolve nonviolence requires, but help to develop that resolve in the reader. Kurlansky never pretends it will be easy, but he makes an eloquent case that a courageous, faithful, and active nonviolence is the best way to bargain with power.

James Trimarco wrote this review as part of Purple America, the Fall 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. James is a consulting editor for YES! Magazine.


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