Chomsky Classic: We Have the Means to End Civilization as We Know It—How Revolutionary Pacifism Can Preserve the Species
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Filipe Matos Frazao
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[Editor's Note: The following is the text of lecture given by Chomsky upon being awarded the Sydney Peace Prize, November 1, 2011. It remains one of the most powerful and persuasive arguments for recognizing the dangers that modern, industrialized warfare pose to the future of humankind.]
As we all know, the United Nations was founded “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” The words can only elicit deep regret when we consider how we have acted to fulfill that aspiration, though there have been a few significant successes, notably in Europe.
For centuries, Europe had been the most violent place on earth, with murderous and destructive internal conflicts and the forging of a culture of war that enabled Europe to conquer most of the world, shocking the victims, who were hardly pacifists, but were “appalled by the all-destructive fury of European warfare,” in the words of British military historian Geoffrey Parker.
And [it] enabled Europe to impose on its conquests what Adam Smith called “the savage injustice of the Europeans,” England in the lead, as he did not fail to emphasize. The global conquest took a particularly horrifying form in what is sometimes called “the Anglosphere,” England and its offshoots, settler-colonial societies in which the indigenous societies were devastated and their people dispersed or exterminated.
But since 1945 Europe has become internally the most peaceful and in many ways most humane region of the earth — which is the source of some its current travail, an important topic that I will have to put aside.
In scholarship, this dramatic transition is often attributed to the thesis of the “democratic peace”: democracies do not go to war with one another. Not to be overlooked, however, is that Europeans came to realise that the next time they indulge in their favorite pastime of slaughtering one another, the game will be over: civilization has developed means of destruction that can only be used against those too weak to retaliate in kind, a large part of the appalling history of the post-World War II years.
It is not that the threat has ended. US-Soviet confrontations came painfully close to virtually terminal nuclear war in ways that are shattering to contemplate, when we inspect them closely. And the threat of nuclear war remains all too ominously alive, a matter to which I will briefly return.
Can we proceed to at least limit the scourge of war? One answer is given by absolute pacifists, including people I respect though I have never felt able to go beyond that. A somewhat more persuasive stand, I think, is that of the pacifist thinker and social activist A.J. Muste, one of the great figures of 20th century America, in my opinion: what he called “revolutionary pacifism.”
Muste disdained the search for peace without justice. He urged that “one must be a revolutionary before one can be a pacifist” — by which he meant that we must cease to “acquiesce [so] easily in evil conditions,” and must deal “honestly and adequately with this ninety percent of our problem” — “the violence on which the present system is based, and all the evil — material and spiritual — this entails for the masses of men throughout the world.”
Unless we do so, he argued, “there is something ludicrous, and perhaps hypocritical, about our concern over the ten per cent of the violence employed by the rebels against oppression” — no matter how hideous they may be. He was confronting the hardest problem of the day for a pacifist, the question whether to take part in the anti-fascist war.