The Politics of Liberation

A Prisoner's Point of View

Jay Edson

Being In prison

During the time that I was in prison I came to the realization that I was in one of the inner circles – one of the deeper hells – of a much larger prison. I saw that society itself – at least as it is currently structured – is a prison. At that time I wrote to my wife, “if the basic problem is one of imprisonment then the solution must be liberation.” As I thought about the meaning of “imprisonment” and “liberation” I came to the conclusion that there are three dimensions to a complete practice of liberation.

The first dimension of liberation pertains to the classical “eastern” or mystical vision of a unity of being beyond the dualities of existence. As I expressed it in that same letter, “first, there is a form of liberation that is grounded in our oneness – in the non-extended unity of things. Our point of contact with the non-extended is in the cessation of extended existence – that is to say, in death. (Or perhaps in a stillness that mimics death.) I include, of course, physical death. But I also have in mind the various other forms of death that we experience – the death of old identities – the death of old ways of being in the world, etc. Always there is an ambivalence about death – some fear, some sense of loss, but also relief and comfort. Thinking about death has often been a source of comfort to me while I have been here.”

I was reading an account of a man who lived for a while in a concentration camp at the time. I wrote, ‘in Buchenwald the stark fact of death was omnipresent in the ugliest possible forms – in the corpses that were brought to roll call every day and in the smoke from the chimneys. Yet it was, for most of the people in the camp, the only form of liberation they would ever know.”

The second and third dimensions of liberation pertains to our existence as historical entities. I wrote “as historical beings – extended in time and space – subject to our finitude and all the contingencies of life that we have not chosen – liberation has two facets. One is individual. When people did real psychotherapy.... that was a path to liberation. The essence of individual liberation is to cast off our false selves and to enter into and affirm our essential selves. In the simplest sense, by our essential selves I refer to the pattern of actual hopes and desires that we have when we do not lie to ourselves. We are systematically alienated from our actual wishes and hopes from very early in our lives, and are taught to be ashamed of them. (Taught to lie). This is true in the sort of theocracy that religious fundamentalists impose on others to the extent they are able. It is equally true of the capitalist and puritan society that we belong to. To discover and become ourselves is the central task of individual liberation.”

The third dimension of liberation that I wrote about involves working toward structural change in society. It pertaines to “our collective or social nature.” Here the path of liberation is found in ‘political action’ in the narrower sense of the term. It seems to me that the path of liberation in our collective efforts at structural change has two aspects. “First, it entails a willingness to take on the collective karma without undue resentment. Second, it means actively working toward the creation of social forms where decision making and the resources for well being are shared (on a world-wide basis) and where individuals and groups are permitted to pursue their varied paths to fulfillment – where they are left alone so long as the do no harm other people.”

You might ask whether I was a “political prisoner” or a “true criminal.” I would suggest that the distinction may not be a valid one. It seems to me that virtually all “criminal” behavior has its origin in either economic inequity or sexual repression. A certain amount of “deviance” is created by more or less arbitrary definitions of what constitutes unacceptable deviations from the norm. In addition, a great many of the pressures that drive people into “crime” are obviously economic in nature, and rooted in an inequitable system. This is not to say that all the acts that lead one into being incarcerated are desirable. But the unmistakable fact is that the truly great atrocities have always been committed by states – by collections of highly righteous and patriotic people. The relatively few truly violent people in our prisons could never, should they work at it day and night, even approximate the horror and suffering created by social groups acting in the name of high ideals and “pure” aims. Yet in any conflict between society and an individual it is always assumed that society has the high moral ground. This is an unwarranted presupposition. Criminals, like their righteous jailers, might sometimes do things that are truly harmful to others. Even so, I would suggest that on the whole most prisoners are political prisoners.

I introduced my reflections on a politics of liberation with some words I wrote while I was still incarcerated in a prison within the United States because I want to remind myself, and suggest to you, where we must begin as we think about liberation. We must become acutely aware of a simple fact. We are all in prison.

“Positive” and “Negative” Rights

The core value of progressive politics is liberation. The achievement of liberation requires an equal concern for both “negative” and “positive” human rights. By “negative” human rights we refer to the right to be left alone and not restrained unnecessarily by the state or the social body in any form. By “positive” human rights we mean the right to shelter, food, health and welfare. Often we find libertarians who are strong advocates for “negative” human rights but who oppose any guarantee that people should have their basic needs met. On the other hand there are socialists who would see that everybody’s basic physical needs were taken care of, but who do not give much weight to the idea that freedom of thought, speech and action are also required for a worthwhile life and a healthy society.

An adequate politics of liberation will affirm both negative and positive rights as equally valid. If someone lives in grinding poverty it is hard to see how the right to be left alone is of much use to him or her. On the other hand, a life of material adequacy without the right to define one’s own goals, to speak one’s own mind, and to tell one’s own story seems like a poor trade-off. The progressive libertarian and the progressive socialist have a meeting point and a common ground in the vision of a fully liberated humanity.

Because we do not live in a liberated society – in terms of either positive or negative human rights – a politics of liberation is needed. Because many people – and especially the most powerful people – have a vested interest in the status quo, intense resistance to any fundamental changes can be expected. The creation of a liberated society will require a revolution. The effective structures of society are in large part built upon beliefs that justify oppression. These structures are tailored to maintaining the status quo. Therefore, police forces, judges, the military, religious leaders, social workers, legislators, and other agents of social control are largely in the hands of the oppressors. This gives them an almost unlimited power to impose sanctions – a power that is indeed awesome to confront. The strategies of a politics of liberation must therefore operate at least in part by guile and finesse. It must in some sense be a guerrilla operation.

Non-violent guerrilla warfare

Those who wish to work toward a more liberated society must think clearly about what actually produces change. They must know what risks are worth taking and when to take them, and when it is time to retreat and regroup. I would also argue that both for ethical and for strategic reasons an effective politics of liberation must be non-violent in its primary methods. Thinking along these lines I have developed what I would understand to be the guiding principles of non-violent guerrilla warfare. My thinking about how one must conduct a revolution is guided throughout by the conviction that no strategy is ethically neutral. With regard to every technique that we use we must first ask whether it will be effective. Will it actually produce change in a desirable direction? Will it liberate people? But we must also ask whether is is ethically justified. Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have hastened the end of the 2nd world war. But setting off these two bombs must still stand out as two of the great collective atrocities in history. I use this rather extreme example simply to make the point that techniques are not ethically neutral.

The Question of Violence

If I speak of “non-violent” guerrilla warfare, then I have some responsibility for being clear about exactly what I mean by “violence.” Given an extreme definition of the term, it is not possible to live without violence. It is built into the scheme of things that life feeds on life. So I cannot live without killing (or paying someone else to do so.) One could easily write a book on the meaning of the term “violence.” The only way I know to cut through the complexities and deal with this question within a short space is simply to define what I mean by the term in the context of this essay. I offer this definition. Violence is action that is directed at another person or group that has the intention of inflicting injury of a spiritual, social, psychological or physical nature. I would suggest that such action is intrinsically undesirable.

One could argue that there are situations in which almost anyone would say that the use of violence, as I have defined it, is “justified,” and I don’t doubt that this is so. When I was interviewed by the Selective Service Commission back in 1958 as a part of my effort to be classified as a conscientious objector so that I could do alternative service, they asked what I would do if a mad man broke into my house and tried to rape my mother. I said of course, that I would do anything within my means to stop the person – even if it meant the use of violence. I am happy to say that this situation never materialized in my life. Their point, of course, was that there are situations in which killing a person would prevent a worse outcome, and they were right as far as that goes. However, it seems to me that we are in need of what could be called “practical absolutes” – guides for behavior that will so seldom mislead us that for most practical intents and purposes they can be considered absolute. To refrain from doing violence against others is such an “absolute.”

The injunction against the torture of prisoners is a good example of a practical absolute. One can imagine extreme situations in which torture might actually be justified. We have a mad man who has planted an atomic weapon somewhere in New York, and it’s going to blow up the whole city in 45 minutes unless we can stop it. We need information to stop this from happening. In reality such scenarios are the stuff of James Bond movies. On the basis of this kind of reasoning the high officials in our country have renounced the Nuremburg Accords and justified the torture of prisoners. Torture is now routine in American prisons much to the shame of this country.

As a practical absolute, I am suggesting that when we conduct a revolution we avoid the use of violent means, both for moral and strategic reasons. Several considerations lead me to this conclusion.

The most successful revolutions of the 20th century have been essentially non-violent in their choice of means. An excellent example is the woman’s movement, which has produced truly revolutionary changes in society. Its primary methods were networking for consciousness raising, a systematic attack on language patterns that embodied a male chauvinist perspective, a systematic effort to tell different stories about women and their place in society, direct personal (but non-violent) confrontation, and, finally, advocacy for new legislation.

The activities of the labor movement were not always free of violence. But their primary tools for forcing changes were slow downs and strikes – not attacks on people. The violence was much more often initiated by the forces of repression. The gay rights movement used techniques that were in many ways similar to the women’s movement. They seldom initiated violence against any of the representatives of the system.

Other examples of revolutions that profoundly changed the societies in which they occurred without resorting to violence as a primary strategy were the anti-war movement during the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, especially as it was led by Martin Luther King Jr., India’s rejection of colonial rule under Gandhi’s leadership, and S. Africa’s rejection of apartheid under the leadership of Mandela.

It appears to me that the violent revolutions, when they are successful, often lead to the creation of societies in which there is a great deal of institutionalized violence. I believe this was the case in both the Russian and the Chinese revolutions. Both revolutions took place in the context of the violent upheavals of the two world wars. The Soviet Union and Communist China were both the end products of extremely violent political actions on many levels. It is hard to weigh the gains made by these revolutions against their failures. The old orders were shattered, which has to be counted as gain. Equity was increased, and a lot of people probably were lifted out of extreme poverty. On the other hand “negative” rights were largely suppressed. The purges and gulags created by Stalin certainly caused a huge amount of suffering as did some of the famines in China created in part by unwise economic decisions – handed down from the top with little or no input from the people.

Minimally one would have to say that for a great number of people neither of these revolutions were especially liberating – however much one might sympathize with the impulses and aims that led to them.

When I put my case before the draft board my major argument was that the use of atomic weapons would be more destructive than any evil that we might be stopping by our use of them. I think I was essentially right. Our capacity for violence is so great at this point that we cannot in good faith support any political action that might contribute to an escalation in its use. We simply have no choice but to find non-violent means for effecting the changes that are needed in the world. Perhaps the realization that violence is no longer an option will motivate us more effective non-violent strategies.

The Refusal to Demonize

Most of us want to retain some demons – some people or groups we feel justified in hating without reservation. But the world is not in fact divided into saints and devils. There’s only us people here. To demonize people – any people – seriously weakens the impact of non-violent strategies for change. Demonization is regularly used by those who are in the business of repression and exploitation. It is a necessary preliminary for scapegoating, distracting people from the real issues, justifying violence, and implementing draconian laws. It is the appropriate weapon of the oppressor – not the liberator.

The Importance of Narrative

People have the need to feel good about themselves. This is true of all people – those who commit enormous crimes against humanity as well as humanity’s greatest benefactors, both criminals and saints (if there be such creatures), and our enemies as well as our friends. When we are no longer able tell stories that portray us as having a positive role in a course of action that we have chosen in the pursuit of some goal, we lose heart for the pursuit of that goal. This fact provides a primary lever for effecting social change. A politics of liberation is first and foremost a narrative politics. It insists that we take a hard look at the stories we tell ourselves, individually and collectively, about what we are doing. It insists that we tell stories from the perspective of the oppressed. Howard Zinn was exemplary in making this clear in his ground-breaking work, “A People’s History of the United States.”

Repressive and exploitive structures in society are maintained above all by the suppression of alternative stories. The importance of this cannot be emphasized enough. At times the suppression is overt. More often the suppression of alternative stories is accomplished by less visible processes. Among those who produce the mass media, a clear understanding exists regarding the acceptable range of discourse on any given topic, how stories should be framed, and what stories must be relegated to the back pages or not published at all. The one thing that the protectors of the status quo cannot tolerate is a popular press that is truly free. Those who disregard these informal patterns of censorship are eased out of their professions. Finding a way to speak, to break through this pattern of censorship, and to provide alternative narratives that become available to the general public, is the first challenge of any revolution.

The Phases of Revolution

Change occurs in two overlapping phases.

The first is concerned with undoing the internalization of violence. The internalization of violence begins in early childhood when children are taught to mistrust their Eros – the life energy that is the natural source of a person’s curiosity and love. In the home this repression focuses with special force on manifestations of infantile, child, and adolescent sexuality. In school the process of alienation is re-enforced as the child’s natural curiosity and interests are ignored, and replaced with the extrinsic motivators of grades and shame. If we alienate children from their Eros up to the age of 16 or 18, there is little danger that many of them will ever be able to do anything holy or tender with their love or sexuality after that. Freudian psychoanalysis describes – perhaps more profoundly than any system of thought preceding it – how the loving libidinal self is hobbled by society at an early age, and how the repressions of society are internalized in the form of what he called the super-ego. Unfortunately Freud saw this as inevitable – perhaps even desirable, however painful it might be. I believe he was mistaken on this point. These anti-libidinal introjects are a form of inner violence that sets every person against himself or herself – not in the service God, but in the service of the rulers of society who are at times mistaken for God. The term given to this inner conflict is neurosis. Neurosis is internalized violence. The task of extricating ourselves from these violent inner structures is an important aspect of inner or personal liberation.

Personal liberation is accomplished through networking and identity change. In large part the change of self-identity comes through telling new stories. Political dominance means possessing the power to define the dominant stories around which a society organizes itself. By hearing these stories over and over oppressed people invariably tend to see themselves as their oppressors do. This is what a homosexual is like. This is what a woman is like. This is what a black person is like. This is what a convict is like. Etcetera, ad nauseam. In this way oppressed people are taught to internalize their oppression. Until conscious efforts are made to undo this internalization of oppression with new stories, one cannot hope for positive results from any direct efforts to change society. All revolutions must begin with networking and the debunking of the old stories. In my own case a large part of this was understanding that I was a political prisoner.

The second phase of a revolution has to do with efforts to actually change the society. A revolution occurs when there is a change in the dominant stories and in the actual structures of society. During the second phase of a revolution the non-violent guerrilla attempts to challenge the narratives of the rulers with alternative stories – in such a way that everybody in the society becomes aware that there is another way of telling the story. Finally, as new stories get heard and have their impact it becomes possible to push for structural change through legislation and the establishment of new power arrangements. When one is at the point of demanding institutional change a variety of techniques may be used. In some cases this may include disruptions of the system – but it need not involve actual violence against people. A general strike in a key industry would be a good example of a tactic that disrupts the system.

The Targets of Revolutionary Action

The appropriate targets for political action are ideas, the narratives built on them, and the social structures and patterns that these ideas and narratives cause people to put in place. The targets are not people.

All the structures of oppression that hem us in rest in the last analysis on three pillars of justification – the three ideas that must be the prime targets of a politics of liberation:

1.That some people – for any reason whatsoever – have the right to a hugely disproportionate portion of the world’s resources. 2.That some individuals or groups have the right to a hugely disproportionate say with regard to the norms, rules and procedures that will guide human affairs in any shared social space. 3.That some people or groups have the right to impose their laws of love, life-style or happiness on any other group or individuals.

In opposition to these ideas a politics of liberation would affirm:

1.That an absolute ceiling must be placed on the amount of wealth that any one person or group can possess in order that all people can have enough, and so that we do not destroy the ecological network upon which we are dependent. 2.That all people who share any social space – whether it be a family, a school or a work place – whether they be children or adults – have the right to participate in the creation of the rules, norms and procedures that guide the interaction in that space. 3.That the state can intervene in the personal lives of individuals only when a stronger person is attempting to exploit or harm a weaker one. This means that nothing that is mutually desired by two or more people should be illegal or relegated to an inferior social status.

I do believe that liberation begins within, and that the first step is re-claiming who we are. But in my process of moving toward an inner liberation I discovered an interesting consequence. The more I became who I am the more I ran into conflicts with society, which led eventually to a significant loss of external freedom. I described this process in another letter to my wife.

“..... Gradually I have become aware of the degree to which the foundations of our social life are based on lies. So gradually – I can’t say when it began – I decided to try not to lie so much. First and foremost I decided not to lie to myself. But I also wanted to tell the truth to other people, at least as much as possible.

“The effort took my life in two diametrically opposite directions. On the one hand I came to be more who I was. And for the most part I was not that unhappy with who I was. On the other hand it brought me into more and more conflict with the “authorities.” Interesting word that. I wonder if it comes from the same word as “authors.” It must, really. The “authors” of reality. More than anything else we are required to see reality as we are asked to. As the “authors” paint it.”

When the process of gaining some degree of inner liberation brought me into conflict with the “authors” of reality, it drove home an important point to me. The process of liberation may have to begin with inner transformation, but it cannot end there. To know who I am but to be unable to express it in harmless or beneficial ways in the world is an incomplete liberation.

The example of impoverished campesinos in Central and S. America makes this clear. In this situation it is well and good to talk about spiritual liberation. Also an inner liberation from the negative forms of self-understanding that have been thrust upon impoverished people is a necessary step, as it is in any situation where liberation is needed. But until campesinos and their families have a living wage and adequate health care the process of liberation is incomplete. Liberation theology understood this. Ideas and narratives must be challenged. But this must be followed by aggressive efforts to change the social structures and patterns that embody these narratives and that enforce repression.

Liberating All People

A politics of liberation must strive toward the liberation of all people – the oppressors as well as the oppressed. Here I must confess that I am influenced by my fundamental sense of the “oneness” of humanity – a conviction that many people may find to be a quaint and irrelevant piece of mysticism. Yet I would argue that growth in ethical awareness is largely a matter of growth in inclusiveness. If the only person whose welfare counts is me, then I am on a fairly low rung of the ethical ladder. If I can at least see my other family members or my buddies as human beings worthy of respect and consideration, that is headway. The ability to include ones class or country in ones circle of concern seems to be as far as many people have progressed at this point, which is unfortunate. It would seem to me that at this juncture in history we need an ethics that advocates for the well being of all human beings – without exception – as its primary concern. Without such a circle of concern becoming the standard pattern of human consciousness, we may simply not survive as a species. As I see it, an ethic based on a universal concern requires that we confront our oppressor as a person deserving respect and consideration – or at least that we attempt to do so as much as our human limitations will allow.

While I was incarcerated I took a couple of correspondence courses in math. In one of them I found an interesting metaphor that seemed to shed light on what the rich do to themselves when they set up walls to protect themselves from the poor. I wrote to my wife, “ I am learning about ‘inverse functions’ in my pre-calculus course. An “inverse function” is a mathematical equation that produces a mirror image of itself on a graph. (I find a sort of aesthetic pleasure in working them out.) That’s what has been produced in the world. We (speaking collectively) have created a set of walls around one group (the larger group of humanity) that imprisons them in their deprivation, poverty and suffering. But this action has an inverse function connected with it. The walls that have been built against the have-nots serve also as prison walls for the haves. What this means is simple. It is not possible not to be imprisoned until we are all set free.”

Issues of Systemic Violence

Whenever a society builds into its structures huge inequities with regard to material well-being and significant repressions with regard to religion, sex, speech and life style, it will create a violent situation. This much is clear. The harm done by those social structures that deprive and repress people has aptly been called “institutionalized violence.” Any sociology or political theory that fails to recognize this kind of violence is not grounded in reality. This violence on a psychological level is manifest in depression and other problems in living. On a sociological level it seems clear that it is the root cause of the lion’s share of crime in any society. It is also manifest in health problems associated with poverty and stress, and in a pervasive crushing of the human spirit. It is often argued that because the structures of a society are themselves violent in their effects on people, that it is justified to use violence to change them.

As a prisoner I was certainly subjected to institutionalized violence. I was denied virtually all the freedoms that most people take for granted, I was provided with very inadequate dental and health care in a situation where I was helpless to provide for my own needs, I was belittled and humiliated on a daily basis, and I was more or less regularly threatened with physical violence. Had someone actually attacked me I would have done whatever was within my power to defend myself. With someone 30 years younger and 80 pounds heavier that may not have been much, but I was resolved that if it should happen I would at least hurt the other person, whatever happened to me. It seemed to me that those most likely to attack me generally did not do that sort of thing if they thought there would be a price to pay – even if they would “win” the fight. Perhaps this threat of violence on my part was sufficiently credible to discourage most would be attackers. A little story may speak to this point:

The Guru Visits Peoria

A spiritual teacher of high attainment was walking with a group of disciples through a suburb of Peoria, Ill., when suddenly a large and vicious dog bounded out from between two houses. Bared teeth and vicious barking clearly communicated the dogs hostile intentions. As the dog rapidly closed the distance between itself and the group of seekers, the teacher took off his belt, and just as the dog came within range, he deftly dealt it a sharp blow to its side. The dog yelped with pain and surprise, and withdrew to a respectful distance. When they had walked on for another two blocks one of the disciples mustered up the courage to speak. “Master,” he said, “you have always taught us that God dwells in all creatures and that whatever we do to the lowliest we do to Him. Knowing this, how could you strike that dog?” “Indeed,” said the master. “What you say is true. We are all God. Knowing this, and being so well attuned to the Absolute Mind, I was able to perceive immediately that God would much prefer to be struck with a belt than to be bitten on his leg.”

So how does this tally with my insistence that in conducting revolutions we should be non-violent guerrillas? As my story suggests, I would be willing to admit that there may be situations where the use or threat of violence may be the action that is the most helpful to the purposes of the universe. But it is one thing to respond to an immediate attack on oneself initiated by another specific person in an effort to defend oneself, and quite another for me to initiate violence myself as a general tactic for correcting institutionalized violence.

To return to the example of the institutionalized violence of the prison, this was not the work of any particular person – whether a guard or an administrator or another prisoner. I was not being attacked by anybody in particular, or, what may amount to the same thing, I was being attacked by everybody. The enemy was the system itself, and this system was supported by the collective ways of understanding things that are prevalent in the society. It was this collective understanding that had to change if society was to stop building prisons, or better yet, if it was ever going to stop creating those conditions that led to problems that seemed to require prisons as a solution. I do not believe that any violent act that I might initiate toward any person in the society would be of any help at all in changing things for the better in this regard. In all probability a violent act would only lead to greater oppression. Ways of understanding things are changed by arguments, by evidence, and by alternative and compelling narratives. Perhaps creating a change sometimes requires doing something disruptive to get people’s attention. But I do not think it requires actual violence against people.

One of the critiques that is sometimes leveled against advocates of non-violence is that for it to be successful it must in fact rely on an underlying threat of violence by other people. Would the British have left India had they not feared a violent revolution had they not responded to the Gandhi’s methods? The same question can be asked about the the forces that led to the end of apartheid in S. Africa. Would the relatively non-violent transition have been possible without the threat of overwhelming violence emerging on a massive scale?

It is true that repression and exploitation create impulses toward reciprocal violence. A person who cannot get adequate medical coverage for his or her child certainly feels like doing harm to whomever is responsible for this. It is also true that fear of this kind of violence is a motivator for the oppressors. In some situations it may be the case that without this fear of violence, the oppressors would not give way and allow more equitable structures to be created. Certainly one feels that this was true of the S. African situation. I would respond to this critique by making two points:

First, the threat of violence in not always a major factor in social change. The fear of violent attacks from feminists was not, for example, a major factor in the dramatic changes produced by the woman’s movement.

Second, the violent impulses produced by repression and exploitation emerge spontaneously. Also, it is inevitable that these impulses will find expression in some kind of action. When this is the case I think it is posible for a person committed to non-violent action to position him/herself in the situation in such a way as to maximize substantial positive social change.

Let me develop the second point a little further. There are, I think, several things that can be done where oppression is already producing a violent reaction.

1.In cases where the violent impulses are being directed at the wrong people – typically at friends, at family members, at ones own self, or at members of other repressed groups – one can work toward consciousness raising as to who is creating the conditions that one is really angry about. One can, in other words, help re-direct the anger toward the more appropriate target. 2. One can in some situations work toward a lessening of the internalization of oppression. 3. One can insist that the violence of the oppressed be understood rather than either condoned or condemned. What brings a Palistinian worman to the point that she ties a lot of explosives around her and blows herself up in a market place? To label her as a “terrorist” is simply a way of not looking at, or assuming responsibility for, the conditions that brought her to this point. 4. One can develop a number of non-violent strategies that offer both the oppressed and the oppressors a way out of a situation that is in nobody’s interest.

It could be argued that any position that insists that revolutions should be carried out entirely with non-violent tactics is hypocritical because all dramatic social change involve disruptions that are harmful to some groups, and hence are inherently violent. We have said that violence is action that is directed at another person or group that has the intention of inflicting injury of a spiritual, social, psychological or physical nature. It cannot be denied that any revolution aimed at making society more equitable and less repressive will create difficulties for some people. It is clear wealthy people and people whose jobs or professions are connected with the repression of others – prison guards for example – might have to make serious life-style or vocational changes.

There will always be people who have a vested interest in the status quo. That is one of the major reasons it is maintained. However, the aim of non-violent guerrillas is not to injure anyone. They are concerned, rather, with preventing those with power from repressing and exploiting others. This can be done while curbing any impulses for revenge or punishment. Furthermore, the power to repress and to exploit is not essential to one’s wellbeing. To no longer have this power is, in fact, liberating. Also, a hugely disproportionate amount of the worlds material goods and power over social norms is not essential for a person’s wellbeing. In short, if I take a yacht away from a rich person, I am doing him or her no real harm. If I take a meal away from a poor person I am.

Hope For the Species

I remember an incident during the March On the Pentagon in 1967. Large crowds of war protesters had more or less surrounded the Pentagon, and it was not that clear what should happen next. Then suddenly a double row of soldiers came marching out from somewhere and positioned themselves in a row across a sidewalk, facing a large number of protesters. We were blocked from continuing down the sidewalk. However, there was nothing to prevent us from simply walking out onto the grass on either side of this line, and going around them – which we did. The soldiers were now surrounded. Someone gave a command and half the soldiers turned around to face those who had gone around them. I was impressed by the discipline. Each soldier knew exactly what he was to do in response to the command. But now all they were doing was protecting each others backsides, which I found immensely funny. They weren’t blocking anyone from going anywhere.

Again there was a hesitation – as though we were in a play and had forgotten our lines. Then someone picked some flowers – where they came from I don’t remember – and started putting them in the barrels of the guns that the soldiers held out in front of them in a rather threatening way. Others joined in. As we made sure that every gun was honored with at least one or two flowers we teased the soldiers, and invited them to join us. Some of the soldiers looked indignant, and others were clearly amused. But none of them knew what they should do. Obviously they had not received much training on how to deal with flower warfare. To this day I am grateful for whatever political genius it was that day who thought of the flowers. It was the perfect statement.

How much did we accomplish? More than our detractors would like to admit, but less than we would have hoped for. I believe we did help force the end of the Vietnam War. For the 30 or so years that have followed the revolution of the 60s, those in power have sought to crush the spirit of those revolutionary times and to re-create a highly repressive society. They have been largely successful. Not long ago a Surgeon General of the United States was forced out of her job for having the audacity to suggest that maybe masturbation is a normal thing for people to do. Bush, in opposition to the Academies of Science in all the most scientifically advanced countries of the word, claims that global warming is a fantasy. And once again we are becoming embroiled in a new Vietnam – this time in the Middle East.

One wonders whether there is any hope at all for our species. Is it possible that there is something in our very nature that will always cause us to befoul our own nests? But I have to base my life on the working hypothesis that such an unequivocally pessimistic assessment is not accurate. People all over the earth are having dreams and visions of a freer world. I live in the hope that such dreams and visions can become a reality. If we are to do the work of liberation without adding to the carnage that humanity has already perpetrated upon itself, it will be necessary to refine and sharpen the weapons of non-violent warfare. That will give us techniques that are compatible with our aims. Much has already been accomplished by non-violent means. It has only been a short while – from the perspective of human history – during which we have experimented with this kind of warfare. Surely with imagination we will be able to develop a wider and more effective repertoire of specific non-violent techniques, and with practice we will become more skilled in their application.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps with human beings the law of tooth and claw will have the final word. Perhaps it is impossible to be relevant in this world without practicing violence. If so I am irrelevant. But it is also possible that the non-violent application of truth and compassion can actually change things. In any case, I choose the path of the non-violent guerrilla. That way, at least, I can live with myself. So I will continue to stuff flowers into the gun barrels of the oppressors until they listen to me. Listen, I will say. I have come to set you free.