Strategic Non-Violence in Perspective
from No Compromise Issue 11
 

By Bruce Friedrich

I have been an animal rights activist since 1987, but have dedicated the bulk of my post-college years to anti-imperialist nonviolent activism. I wrote my college honors thesis on the Tolstoy-Gandhi-King philosophy of nonviolence and continue to devour new books as they're written. I spent more than six years working full-time in a Catholic Worker shelter for homeless families and a soup kitchen in Washington, D.C., without pay (part of Gandhi's nonviolent program).

As someone who has read extensively in the nonviolent tradition over the past 11 years, who has been arrested for direct action more than 50 times, and who has spent almost 3 years incarcerated for nonviolent civil disobedience in the Gandhian tradition, I feel a need to respond to Freeman Wicklund, who supports a Gandhian approach to animal liberation ("Direct Action: Progress or Peril," Animal's Agenda, July/August, 1998). Clearly, Freeman has done his research, but I feel that he misses multiple crucial points:

Gandhian direct action (called satyagraha-Sanskrit for "truthforce"-by Gandhi) has certainly played a role in previous movements for social change, but only a role, and not necessarily the most important role. Freeman's interpretation of history indicates that he has read only the texts which advocate Gandhian nonviolence. These texts, and thus Freeman, claim far more efficacy for satyagraha than is historically accurate. A more thorough analysis indicates that real impetus for change comes from the Nat Turners, John Browns and Malcolm Xs. It is worth recalling that the assassinations of both King and Gandhi, the avatars of Freeman's nonviolent program, caused extensive violent rioting on the part of their supporters, and that disinterested histories of abolition or civil rights in the U.S. or independence in India, indicate that constant social unrest and riots were very helpful in allowing these movements to succeed. Of course, the oppressors profited by promoting and treating respectfully Gandhi, King and their nonviolent program, because their program allowed the powers to toss them in jail and not worry. Direct action which utilizes a broader range of tactics, including secrecy and sabotage, is far more challenging, and, consequently, more effective. But even if strategic nonviolence were the best thing for India and civil rights in the U.S., there are still many aspects of their historical reality which indicate that their experiences are not transferable to our work for animal liberation, including my next four points.

Gandhi and King had massive numbers of self-interested followers. Their movements involved and required hundreds of thousands of people, marching and sacrificing. Presently, 1 percent of the population is vegetarian. Does it seem reasonable to wait until we have the mass movement (do the animals have the time to spare?) required for Gandhi's, King's, Freeman's program to enact animal liberation?

Gandhi and King stressed that satyagraha requires that the oppressors see the suffering of the satyagrahis (nonviolent activists) and say: "That person is like me, despite being Indian/black/whatever." Copying that in the animal movement would require animal self-sacrificial suffering, rather than human suffering. There is simply no translation.

Gandhi and King also stressed the power of global opinion to win their liberty. What gave them the limited power they possessed was massive global popular opinion on their behalf. The entire world in the 1930s and '40s was awed by Gandhi and supported Indian independence. Support for civil rights in the U.S. was so strong that King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The world was able to look at India, to look at the U.S., and say "We don't do that here." The likelihood of this working with animal liberation seems limited.

Gandhi and King both spoke and wrote eloquently about the need for satyagrahis to "fill the jails," to "enter the prisons as the bride-groom enters the bridal chamber," with joy. However much I wish we had enough animal liberationists to "fill the jails," we don't. Again, animal liberation is an altruistic movement which does not compare easily to any past social movement. The two movements it compares least with, however, are arguably civil rights and Indian independence, which had massive numbers of self-interested adherents.

The underground railroad and Nazi resistance throughout Europe seem better comparisons for the animal rights movement, because they involved people advocating and acting for others (though even these had global opinion and exponentially more supporters than animal liberation today). Both required air tight secrecy, as much sabotage as possible, and deception and lies for the greater good, all anti-thetical to Gandhi's and King's (and Freeman's) nonviolent program, which calls for "openly revealing their plans beforehand". With so much economic pressure against our movement, so little support, no self-interested voices, no international support, few willing to go to jail involuntarily (let alone voluntarily), etc., Gandhi's program (proposed as the best or only alternative) seems naive, misguided and harmful.

I have found that Animal Liberation Front activities speak to people, regardless of their belief in animal rights. They "get it." People don't understand daylight liberations and voluntarily going to jail. I can't tell you how many people (fellow prisoners and guards while I was in prison; relatives, church groups and others outside of prison) have said to me: "You're in jail voluntarily? If the cause is so important, why go to jail when you can keep acting for your cause on the outside? Why on earth don't you keep acting until you're caught?" Why indeed?

Ask yourself: is strategic nonviolence always the best tactic, as its adherents claim? For example, the fellow who stole a mistreated rabbit from an abusive "owner's" yard contends that direct action worked wonders for that rabbit overnight. Would you have that rabbit remain in those conditions because strategic nonviolence is always right? Or imagine a slave or Jewish concentration camp victim with the opportunity to escape. Should she? If your answer is yes, then the philosophical paradigm of nonviolence has holes, and each situation should be analyzed separately.

Indeed, how can Freeman so discount the many animals who have been saved by A.L.F. activities? And doesn't Freeman remember the many undercover investigations carried out (and photos/videos taken) by PETA, Farm Sanctuary, SHARK (formerly CHARC) and others, followed by powerful exposes which have saved countless animal lives, brought the issue of animal suffering into the public sphere, mobilized public opinion, led to lawsuits against animal abusers, led to labs shutting down, and been so valuable and important for our movement? Leave aside the Animal Liberation Front for a moment: Gandhi and King opposed any deception and so does Freeman. Satyagraha precludes any deception, no matter how noble, no matter how effective. Considering the power of our opposition, can you imagine where we would be without surprise direct actions and the secrecy required for so much of what we do?


I know Freeman personally, and I like and respect him. But I am worried by anyone who claims to have the "best" or "only" plan for animal liberation, or who calls a news conference to disavow a tactic still supported by so many in his movement. We are all working toward the same goal and we should support one another-as long as basic humane principles are not violated. Any exclusionary essays (and press conferences) seem ill-considered. I have heard that some who adhere to Strategic Nonviolence claim that ALF activities are counterproductive or even the moral equivalent of vivisection. This is completely antithetical to the philosophies of King and Gandhi, who understood that "we are all in this struggle together." Gandhi once told his son that if his son did not embrace nonviolence (and Gandhi was humble enough to consistently tell people to make their own decisions), he should pick up a gun and defend India's right to be free. We need to stop the internecine fighting and name calling and get back to the business of animal liberation.

Nonviolent action in the Gandhian tradition is certainly better than doing nothing. The issue is important enough that people should do the reading themselves. Don't take my (or Freeman's) word for it: read the histories of both King and Nat Turner; read Gandhi's and King's writings. I think you will agree with me that the comparisons made in Freeman's piece and the conclusion that "our current direct action prevents us from confronting the roots of the problem, prolongs our struggle and ultimately increases the number of animals exploited" is so ill-conceived and poorly supported as to be, considering the import of our shared goal, obscene.