Non-violence

“. . . if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one . . .” The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That is enough,” he replied.

Luke 22:35-38

“The ability to use physical force is necessary for a true appreciation of satyagraha. He alone can practise ahimsa who knows how to kill.”

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

They’ve got the guns but we’ve got the numbers.

Jim Morrison, The Doors

Non-violence is a tactic, not an immutable principle. Even Gandhi, who has been beatified into the status of a secular saint by those who misunderstand his principle of satyagraha (a Sanskrit term which may be translated loosely as “insistence on truth”) was well aware of that. He was not being inconsistent when he expressed approval of violence in certain circumstances, despite his advocacy of ahimsa (another Sanskrit term, meaning to do no harm).

In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth (a significant neo-Pilatism), he spoke of his “readiness to obey the call of Truth, my God, from moment to moment . . My aim is not to be consistent with my previous statements,” [but] “with truth as it may present itself to me at a given moment”. “[S]ince I am called ‘Great Soul’ I might as well endorse Emerson’s saying that ‘foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds’.”

(Quoted by Perry Anderson, London Review of Books, July 5, 2012)

Of course Gandhi’s “truth” was purely subjective; he was not preaching any kind of dialectic, in which “A” and “not A” might be part of the same reality.

But Jesus was. He followed the rabbinic principle of the inter-penetration of opposites. Yes, he told his follower who cut off the soldier’s ear when he was betrayed into the hands of the religious authorities, “he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword” (literally “all those who take the sword will perish by the sword”, Matthew 26: 52). But he was not advocating pacifism. Why did his follower have a sword, if not in obedience to his command that anyone with two cloaks should sell one and buy a sword (Luke 22:35-38)? The surname of Judas, his betrayer, Iscariot, came from his membership of the sicarii, a Judaic terrorist group whose name derived from the curved, scimitar-like dagger with which they despatched their victims, and another of his followers, Simon, is described as a Zealot, an extremist Pharisaic group dedicated to the expulsion of the Roman occupiers.

But clearly, Jesus knew the time was not ripe for the uprising his followers longed for. His fears were justified some four decades after his execution, when such an uprising destroyed Jewish society and its institutions, leading to the diaspora and the anomalous existence of the state of Israel today.

Perhaps he was speaking pragmatically, not theologically. His band of 12 was outnumbered by the temple guards (plus a cohort of 600 Roman troops), and if it came to a pitched battle the outcome was certain. And he would have his day in court, to speak out before the Sanhedrin against the hypocrites who ruled religious affairs in Jerusalem (though it turned out to be a kangaroo court, convened at night and on the eve of a religious festival – both of which made it illegal under Jewish law – with evidence from false witnesses).

Physical force versus moral force

The same issues which challenged the tiny band of Messianic Jews when confronted by the military might of the Roman Empire and its administrators in Jerusalem, came to the fore in England in 1848, which for most of Europe was truly the year of revolutions. It was a near thing. The opportunity came and went; revolution seemed to have passed England by.

Three decades earlier, the Luddites had called in question the technological basis of the industrial revolution, but despite having the oratorical support of Byron in the House of Lords, they had never constituted any real threat to the emerging industrial status quo. Nor had there been any questioning among themselves of the violence of the machine wreckers, whose image was “Great Enoch”, the hammer they wielded in defence of their communities.

Chartism constituted potentially a much greater threat, because of its political dimension. And the reasons for its failure lay not in the schism between those in favour of physical force, who marched with Christ’s commandment to sell their cloaks and buy swords on their banners, and those who claimed the moral force of their demands. Though historians tend to pose the Rev Charles Kingsley as spokesman for the “moral force” argument, in fact he did not emerge in that role until after the advocates of physical force had failed in their threatened assault on the centre of political power.

But there were two strands within the physical force advocates, those who felt it was necessary to defend themselves from attacks by the powers that be, and those who were inspired by the example of the French Revolution to plan the overthrow of an increasingly authoritarian state.

Even before the first wordings of the Charter were being drawn up in London in 1837, the authorities were attempting to clamp down on radical opposition. On May 13, 1833, a “National Convention” to channel disappointment at the limitations of the 1832 Reform Act was ruled illegal by Lord Melbourn, the Home Secretary. When the organisers went ahead with it anyway, it was attacked by the police, and during the ensuing melée, a police constable was stabbed, and bled to death in a pub nearby.

A correspondent for The Times wrote:

“The police furiously attacked the multitude with their staves, felling every person indiscriminately before them; even the females did not escape the blows from their batons – men and boys were lying in every direction weltering in their blood and calling for mercy.”

At the inquest on PC Culley, the jury recorded a verdict of “justifiable homicide”, since the crowd had not been ordered to disperse under the terms of the Riot Act, and that the “conduct of the police was ferocious, brutal, and unprovoked by the people”.

This was the atmosphere within which Chartism grew, and historically, from then on violence was always part of Chartism’s rhetorical armoury. The slogan, “peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must” did not necessarily imply a readiness for insurrection. As in the United States’ Constitution, the right to bear arms was regarded as part of every Englishman’s heritage. When Bradford’s Peter Bussey responded to the toast at a Halifax dinner in his honour, he was reported as saying:

“. . . now he recommended that every man before him should be in possession of a musket, which was a necessary article that ought to provide part of the furniture of every man’s house. And every man ought to know well the use of it, that he may use it effectively when the time arrives that requires him to put it into operation . . .”

So reported Feargus O’Connor’s newspaper, the Northern Star, in its issue of January 19, 1839. This was not an isolated case. In April of the previous year, the Bradford magistrates reported that “parties of the very lowest grade” were buying muskets, pikes and pistols. “This state of things is more to be regretted as there is plenty of Employment for the working classes,” they added.

So while it did much to fan the flames when it first published in November of the previous year, the Northern Star profited by but did not create the enthusiasm of its readers for what its critics regarded as its inflammatory reporting. With a cover price of fourpence-ha’penny a copy, a circulation of over thirty-two thousand was claimed, and since these were passed round from hand to hand in alehouses and mechanics’ institutes, the readership of the Northern Star was easily ten or twenty times higher than that.

O’Connor was a charismatic character, and his espousal of the physical force party played a large part in spreading the gospel of “forcibly if we must”. One of his first contributors was a young German philosopher, Karl Marx, who wrote in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung that “the revolutionary Northern Star is the only English newspaper for whose appreciation we care”.

A leading member of the Female Radical Association in Elland, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, Elizabeth Hanson, had one of her sons christened Feargus O’Connor Hanson.

One of O’Connor’s critics, R. G. Gammage, wrote of him:

“That O’Connor had a desire to make the people happier, we never in our lives disputed. He would have devoted any amount of work for that purpose; but there was only one condition on which he would consent to serve the people – the condition was, that he should be their master; and in order to become so, he stopped to flatter their most unworthy prejudices, and while telling them that they ought to depend upon his judgment, he at the same time assured them that it was not he who had given them knowledge, but that on the contrary, it was they who had conferred on him what knowledge he possessed.”

The question of the “ulterior measures” to be adopted if Parliament were to refuse the demands of the Charter had come up at The General Convention of the Industrious Classes in 1839, when delegates pledged to ask their supporters throughout the land to consider whether,

“according to their old constitutional right – a right which modern legislators would fain annihilate – they have prepared themselves with the arms of freemen to defend the laws and constitutional privileges their ancestors bequeathed to them?”

William Lovett, elected secretary of the convention (and arrested almost immediately by the authorities) described the proceedings in his memoir, The Life and Struggles of William Lovett in his pursuit of Bread, Knowledge and Freedom (Trubner & Co, London, 1876):

“The delay . . . in presenting the petition gave great offence to the physical force party, and more especially to the Democratic Association of London, at the head of which was Mr. George Julian Harney, one of the most indiscreet, if not the most violent among them, for he scrupled not to flourish his dagger at public meetings, in order to give point to his perorations.

“This party, being joined by a few of the most hotheaded and enthusiastic members of the Convention, were very industrious out of doors in censuring and denouncing us for our delay at their various meetings, and also created much excitement, division, and loss of time in the Convention by their insane and foolish conduct. . .

“It may be necessary, however, to state that this violent party were greatly in the minority, both for numbers and talent, till the resignation of the Birmingham delegates and other resignations that speedily followed, whose places were supplied, for the most part, with men of less reasonable views.

“During the delay that took place in the presentation of the petition, those of the members not engaged as missionaries employed themselves in the discussion of a variety of questions brought before them. About the first of those questions was that of ‘ulterior measures’, or measures to be adopted if the petition should be rejected. This was introduced by Bailie Craig, of Ayrshire, but which question it was judged prudent to postpone until after the presentation of the petition. . .

“Among the letters read one morning was one from the London Democratic Association, containing a series of resolutions passed at one of their meetings, to the effect, ‘that if the Convention did its duty the Charter would be the law of the land in less than a month’; ‘that no delay should take place in the presentation of the national petition’; and that every act of injustice and oppression should be immediately met by resistance’. A motion that this ultra communication should not be received gave rise to a very long discussion, in which the conduct of three members, Harney, Ryder, and Marsden (who took part in the meeting referred to), was very warmly reprobated and condemned. They having expressed their approbation of the resolutions referred to during the debate, a motion was brought forward at the next meeting by Mr Whittle, the editor of the Champion, to the effect that they should be called upon to offer an apology for, and disclaimer of the resolutions addressed to the Convention. They having refused to do this, a motion was brought forward the next day for expelling them, when they deemed it advisable to make the apology required, after they had thus wasted three days of our time.”

The manifesto drawn up by this Convention recommended:

  • That at all simultaneous public meetings to be held for the purpose of petitioning the Queen to call good men to her councils, as well as at all subsequent meetings of your unions or associations up to the 1st of July, you submit the following questions to the people there assembled: –
  • Whether they will be prepared, at the request of the Convention, to withdraw all sums of money they may individually or collectively have placed in savings’ banks, private banks, or in the hands of any person hostile to their just rights?
  • Whether, at the same request, they will be prepared immediately to convert all their paper money into gold and silver?
  • Whether, if the Convention shall determine that a sacred month will be necessary to prepare the millions to secure the charter of their political salvation, they will firmly resolve to abstain from their labours during that period, as well as from the use of all intoxicating drinks?
  • Whether, according to their old constitutional right – a right which modern legislators would fain annihilate – they have prepared themselves with the arms of freemen to defend the laws and constitutional privileges their ancestors bequeathed to them?
  • Whether they will provide themselves with chartist candidates, so as to be prepared to propose them for their representatives at the next general election; and if returned by show of hands such candidates to consider themselves veritable representatives of the people – to meet in London at a time hereafter to be determined on?
  • Whether they will resolve to deal exclusively with Chartists, and in all cases of persecution rally around and protect all those who may suffer in their righteous cause?
  • Whether by all and every means in their power they will perseveringly contend for the great objects of the People’s Charter, and resolve that no counter agitation for a less measure of justice shall divert them from their righteous object?
  • Whether the people will determine to obey all the just and constitutional requests of the majority of the Convention?

There is no record of any detailed responses to these questions, but the controversies about physical force/ulterior measures continued while both wings of the movement were collecting signatures for the Charter, with the following aims:

  • Universal male suffrage,
  • Secret ballot,
  • No property qualifications for MPs,
  • Payment of members,
  • Equal electoral districts, and
  • Annual Parliaments.

All but one of these demands are now part of Britain’s electoral system. But there were other demands, in effect other Charters.

The original “People’s Charter”, drawn up and published by the London Working Men’s Association in May 1838, actually contained nine points, and the “national petition” agreed to by the meeting of the Birmingham Political Union in August, 1838, which subsequently became the first Chartist petition presented to Parliament in July of the contained only five points (it excluded the call for equal electoral districts). The second Chartist petition, which went to the House of Commons in May 1842, included eight points (in addition to the six points, demanding repeal of the Union between Britain and Ireland, and requiring that MPs report back to their constituents at frequent intervals).

Kingsley had no problem with any of these. His only caveat was that the demands were too limited. He wrote:

“I am a Radical reformer. I am not one of those who laugh at your petition. I have no patience with those who do. My only quarrel with the Charter is that it does not go far enough in reform.”

Later, he amplified this critique:

“I want to see you free; but I do not see how what you ask for will give you what you want. I think you have fallen into just the same mistake as the rich of whom you complain — the very mistake which has been our curse and our nightmare: I mean, the mistake of fancying that legislative reform is social reform, or that men’s beam can be changed by Act of Parliament. If anyone will tell me of a country where a charter made the rogues honest, or the idle industrious, I shall alter my opinion of the Charter, but not till then. It disappointed me bitterly when I read it. It seems a harmless cry enough, but a poor, bald, constitution-mongering cry as I ever heard.”

Millions signed up to the Charter. When it was rejected in Parliament by 287 votes to 49 on April 10, 1848, it was over six miles long and bore the names of 3,317,702 of the disenfranchised.

But the promised confrontation on the streets of London never happened. A contemporary critic wrote:

“There was nothing to be done. The demonstration in a few hours had passed from tragedy to farce. The crowding of London with troops, the enrolling of 150,000 special constables to guarantee the preservation of property, the lack of leadership among the workmen, and their own weakness and irresolution, had rendered all prospect of violence negligible. The numbers who assembled proved ridiculously inadequate to the work which they proposed to accomplish. Rain fell steadily. The leaders fled. The crowd dispersed. The great petition crawled ingloriously to Westminster in a four-wheeled cab. The day closed in mockery and rejoicing.”

In response to Parliament’s rejection of the Charter, there was a call for a month-long general strike (or “Sacred Month”, but O’Connor opposed it.

He wrote in his paper:

“I do now most emphatically warn you, that the attempt to stop work for a month would either have the effect of subjugating the working men more than ever to the will of their masters, or of terminating in a short and sanguinary sectional struggle, the result of which would be a licence for every rich man to shoot as many poor men as he thought proper.”

Northern Star, August 3, 1839

An unsigned editorial in the same issue linked the question of the proposed strike with the necessity for the people to be ready to defend themselves (and the words were printed in capitals to drive them home):

“ANY ATTEMPT TO BRING ABOUT THE SACRED MONTH BEFORE AN UNIVERSAL ARMING SHALL HAVE TAKEN PLACE, WILL RUIN ALL.”

The Chartists struck anyway, marching from town to town, knocking out the boiler plugs in the factories which would not join them.

Three thousand drilled in Wilsden, under a black flag. In Bradford they beat the police in a straight fight.

Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cheshire, the Potteries, Warwickshire, Wales, workers as far north as Aberdeen were about to join when the Northern Star denounced the strike as a government provocation: fifteen hundred strikers were arrested and 79 of them transported to Australia.

The Newport “Rising”

Though there had been widespread calls for a violent confrontation with the authorities after the rejection of the Charter, these did not receive widespread support, apart from in Wales. But there, the so-called Newport Rising of November, 1839 was a reaction to the arrest and imprisonment of a number of Chartists in that city, not part of a planned strategy.

Passions had already been inflamed by the arrest in May 1838 of Henry Vincent for “making inflammatory speeches” and his conviction at the Monmouth Assizes in August of the following year resulting in a 12 months’ sentence.

Ironically, though the former Mayor of Newport, John Frost, was condemned to death (later commuted to transportation for life) for his part in the Newport rising, his initial response to the jailing of Vincent was to tour Wales urging people not to break the law.

Instead, he planned a massive protest meeting in his home town in November. For this campaign he was removed from office as Mayor.

Meanwhile, however, the advocates of physical force were gathering force in the area. Local miners were reputed to be arming themselves with home-made pikes, bludgens and firearms. On November 3, the day before the planned meeting, Thomas Phillips, Frost’s successor, swore in five hundred Special Constables and asked for more troops to be added to the force of sixty soldiers already in the town. Thirty-two soldiers of the 45th (Nottinghamshire) Regiment of Foot were provided and were quartered in the town’s Westgate Hotel.

The Chartists planned to hold their protest at Vincent’s jail sentence in Newport early on the morning of the following day. They would march in three columns under cover of darkness, with Frost leading the western column, Zepheniah Williams the central column from Blackwood, and William Jones the eastern column, from Pontypool.

However, Jones’s column never reached the planned assembly point, so after waiting for him and his men for over six hours in the pouring rain, the other two columns set off together and arrived in Newport as dawn was breaking, soaking wet from the rain and dispirited.

They were over one thousand strong – some contemporary accounts estimated five times that number – and when they learned that Phillips’ Special Constables had arrested a number of local Chartists, holding them in the Westgate Hotel, at 9.30am they resolved to march down Stow Hill chanting “release our prisoners”.

Their assembly point was outside the very hotel where the Nottinghamshire soldiers were stationed, and they were greeted by a fusillade of shot, in which over twenty marchers were killed and fifty more fell wounded, suffering from gunshot wounds. They fought back, and the Mayor, one soldier and two Specials were seriously wounded.

Two hundred marchers were arrested and twenty-one charged with High Treason. The three leaders of the march – including William Jones, who was not even there – were found guilty and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. After a nationwide campaign, in which even the Lord Chief Justice appealed to the Home Secretary for leniency, the sentences of each were commuted to transportation for life.

In 1856, Frost and the others were given unconditional pardons, and he returned in triumph to a hero’s welcome in Newport (the other two elected to remain in Australia).

The following year, Chartists in Bradford and Sheffield were brought to trial for planning uprisings.

Gammage wrote of the trial in 1854:

“On Monday, March the 16th [1840], the Yorkshire assizes commenced, before Mr Justice Erskine and Mr Justice Coleridge when the Sheffield Chartists were brought to trial. The court presented from the outset a very animated appearance; the gentlemen of the legal profession attending in large numbers both for and against the prisoners. Holberrry, the two Bookers, Duffy and Wells were first indicted for conspiracy and riot.

“By way of supporting the evidence against the prisoners, a large basket full of hand-grenades, and other combustible materials, was placed upon the table, and a great number of pikes and daggers were also produced. The evidence went to prove that these were found in possession of the prisoners at the time of their arrest.

“The charges appeared to weigh most heavily against Holberry, who did not, when arrested, deny, but on the contrary, admitted, that his object was to upset the Government, and he professed his willingness to die for the Charter. The principal witnesses for the prosecution were Foxhall and Thompson, who were admitted as Queen’s evidence, and who had taken an active part in the proceedings of the accused. . .

“[A]fter Justice Erskine had summed up, the jury found all the prisoners guilty. William Wells, John Clayton, John Marshall, Thomas Penthorpe, Joseph Bennison, and Charles Fox were charged with similar offences, and pleaded guilty. Robert Cox, George Gullimore, James Bartholomew, Joseph Lingard, Thomas Powls, and Joshua Clayford, who had been out on bail, were also indicted for riot and conspiracy. Mr Baines and Mr Wortley prosecuted; Mr Murphy and Mr Wilkins defended the prisoners in able addresses, and succeeded in procuring a verdict of acquittal. John Marsden was indicted for riot, and attempting to liberate from prison Peter Foden, one of the arrested Chartists, to which charge he pleaded guilty. William Martin was indicted for sedition. Messrs Baines and Wortley conducted the prosecution. The prisoner was most eloquently defended by Mr Watson, but the result was a verdict of guilty.”

In a separate trial, Feargus O’Connor was accused of newspaper libel. He was condemned to eighteen months’ imprisonment, but was actually released after ten months, on account of his health. Bradford Chartists were also tried and found guilty.

In Charles Kingsley’s novel, Alton Locke, the semi-autobiographical eponymous hero summed up the failure of the Charter thus:

“I have promised to say little about the Tenth of April,”

[1838]

“for indeed I have no heart to do so. . . We had arrayed against us, by our own folly, the very physical force to which we had appealed.

“The dread of general plunder and outrage by the savages of London, the national hatred of that French and Irish interference of which we had boasted, armed against us thousands of special constables, who had in the abstract little or no objection to our political opinions.

“The practical common sense of England, whatever discontent it might feel with the existing system, refused to let it be hurled rudely down, on the mere chance of building up on its ruins something as yet untried, and even undefined.

“Above all, the people would not rise. Whatever sympathy they had with us, they did not care to show it. And then futility after futility exposed itself. The meeting which was to have been counted by hundreds of thousands, numbered hardly its tens of thousands; and of them a frightful proportion were of those very rascal classes, against whom we ourselves had offered to be sworn in as special constables.

“O’Connor’s courage failed him after all. He contrived to be called away, at the critical moment, by some problematical superintendent of police. . . and the meeting broke up pitiably piecemeal, drenched and cowed, body and soul, by pouring rain on its way home – for the very heavens mercifully helped to quench our folly – while the monster-petition crawled ludicrously away in a hack cab, to be dragged to the floor of the House of Commons amid roars of laughter. . .”

The “moral force” Chartists were left to continue the campaign and went on to found what became known as Christian socialism, playing a significant role in the creation of what became the Labour Party.

The democratisation of the military

In Venezuela, the counter-revolution failed, because the army had been democratised by the ex-paratrooper, Hugo Chávez. Jan McGirk, Latin America Correspondent for The Independent, wrote (Monday, April 15, 2002) of the defeat of the Venezuelan coup:

“. . . bullets whizzed around protesters clanging pots and pans to demand the return of the populist paratrooper who was elected by a landslide majority in 1998. Military sharpshooters on the surrounding rooftops waved fists in support of the protesters.”

This alliance between the military and the popular masses did not arise spontaneously. Chavez and his fellow officers began building a base in the army in the early 1980s with the illegal Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement, which metamorphosed into the legal Movement of the Fifth Republic after two failed attempts to seize power in 1992.

Thus it will be observed that Venezuela’s parliamentary road was a specifically Latin American application of the Bolshevik lesson of 1908: this combination of the legal and illegal saw Chávez elected President in 1998, consolidating his position in 2000 and 2006.

A personal afterword

I first encountered the violent response of the forces of law and order in 1938 when my mother took me on what she no doubt expected to be a peaceful demonstration against Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler over Czechoslovakia. Instead, mounted police charged the peaceful crowd in Whitehall, using their horses to push demonstrators into shop doorways, where they could not escape, hitting them with long, sword-like batons. I can still hear the keening cries of women thus assaulted.

Years later I began singing Which Side Are You On, composed at about the same time by Florence Reece, a coal miner’s wife in bloody Harlan County.

In the 1960s I was singing to an Anti-Apartheid rally in Trafalgar Square when fascists invaded the stage. I continued singing while they wrestled for the microphone.

In 1969 I was in Grosvenor Square, protesting outside the American Embassy at the Vietnam War when I had my nose broken by a truncheon when the police rioted and attacked the demonstrators. My offence: I was pulling to his feet a young man on the ground, surrounded by a dozen or so boys in blue who were giving him a kicking.

In 1984, I was one of a group of 20 members of Christian CND who effectively blockaded the Ministry of Defence on Ash Wednesday, marking the walls with charcoal slogans, for which many (including myself) were found guilty of criminal damage.

In 2002 I went to occupied Palestine as a member of the International Solidarity Movement, after mandatory training in non-violent actions. The following year I was a Human Shield volunteer in Iraq, and observed how lack of such training in that movement made us powerless in our campaign against the war.

My expenses on both occasions were covered by collections at local churches and mosques.

I took part in the 365-day blockade of the Faslane nuclear base in Scotland in 2006/7, during which a group of demonstrators superglued themselves to each other and forced the police to close one of the gates of the base. I myself lay beside them, singing We Shall Not Be Moved, and continued singing while I was being carried away to be arrested.

When the fascist “English Defence League” came to Bradford in 2010 I helped to organize a multi-cultural alternative event, “We Are Bradford”, which attracted thousands from all over Britain to a city centre site. An alternative event organized by the local city council attracted a few hundred, many of whom also attended both events.

Since I have had a heart pacemaker fitted I tend to avoid such confrontations with the police, but often help in organizing non-violent direct actions.

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