Why pacifists aren't as bad as Peter Gelderloos says they are

Meme of Gandhi advocating for a nuclear strike to end humanity.

A critical review Peter Gelderloos' How Nonviolence Protects the State, a much-read but rarely analysed book.

Peter Gelderloos’ book How Nonviolence Protects the State has reached a level of cult popularity that few radical books reach. Radicals of all stripes have embraced it, and found it connected with them on some significant level. It’s got hundreds of positive reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, an interview with Gelderloos about it has around 15000 views on YouTube (relatively high for an anarchist work) and it has been posted dozens of times on Twitter, Reddit and Facebook.

For all its popularity, there is a noticeable lack of pacifist or nonviolent responses to it; I can only find one published – a critical review, How nonviolence is misrepresented, by Brian Martin, published in Gandhi Marg. Though I’m not a pacifist – I believe that in certain circumstances, violent action is entirely just – I do feel some sympathy for the position, and I feel that the doctrine is more reasonable than Gelderloos insists.

How nonviolence is smeared

The most striking element of Gelderloos’ book is his complete lack of engagement with pacifist or nonviolent literature. The vast majority of his claims about pacifists are not actually argued for with evidence. There are countless examples. Under the heading ‘Nonviolence is ineffective’, Gelderloos claims that “the pacifist position requires that success must be attributable to pacifist tactics and pacifist tactics alone”. This claim, that would be contested by many pacifists, is unexplained, and is deployed in the context of an argument (well, probably more like a plain statement) that pacifists manipulate and whitewash history. Gelderloos backs this up with one citation; an anecdote about a pacifist at an anarchist conference he once attended. This is not very rigorous, but Gelderloos’ book is filled with alleged examples of why pacifists are the great evil that really just amount to “someone said something stupid on an e-mail list”. This is about on the same level as “anarchism is bad, because an anarchist on a Facebook told me that having an iPhone is bourgeois”.

There’s a lot of strawmen in this book, strawmen who could have disappeared had Gelderloos actually conducted serious research and read authors he didn’t already agree with. Virtually all of his claims about pacifists are not backed up, from “the typical pacifist is quite clearly white and middle class”, to “[pacifism] ignores that violence is already here”, to the particularly lurid “nonviolence implies that it is better for someone to be raped than to pull the mechanical pencil out of her pocket and plunge it into her assailant’s jugular”. The total argumentation given for that particular claim is a bracketed note suggesting that pacifists think this is bad “because doing so would supposedly contribute to some cycle of violence and encourage future rapes”. “Supposedly”? What pacifist has ever said anything like this? Is this supposed to be a logical conclusion of pacifist premises? How? Who on earth is it that would make a claim like this? Virtually every pacifist would admit outright that violence conducted in direct self-defense is justifiable. I don’t think any of them would say that it is better that somebody gets raped.

Gelderloos’ argumentation is sloppy. One of the central arguments of his book is that nonviolence is ineffective, because nonviolent campaigns in the past only succeeded because of violent actions that were undertaken at the same time – for example, Gandhi’s pacifist struggles only allowed India to achieve independence because there were militants like Bhagat Singh and Chandrasekhar Azad violently confronting British imperialism. This argument is potentially interesting and would be worth making a note of were it not undercut by his claim in the very next paragraph that pacifism protects the state because the independence movement in India failed.

Another particularly interesting example of Gelderloos’ sloppiness appears when he seems to discover that not all pacifists believe the same thing. He quotes the pacifist David Dellinger’s criticism of pacifists at the time for their tendency to “line up, in moments of conflict, with the status quo”. He uses this quote to argue that pacifists are racist because they line up with the status quo in moments of conflict. Huh? Surely Dellinger’s thoughts here should cause one to rethink the claim (made “only after careful consideration”) that pacifists are racists. I mean, Gelderloos himself notes that Dellinger thought pacifists must at times “become reluctant allies or critical supporters of those who resort to violence”.

Gelderloos entirely ignores the debates within nonviolent activism and pacifism. Radicals like A.J. Muste are ignored, except when he is used to show that pacifism is racist because the “teachers” of it are predominantly white (side note – I wonder if Gelderloos thinks that anarchism is racist, because the main teachers of it like Bakunin, Goldman, Kropotkin, Bonanno, Galleani, et cetera are white). It’s a pity because if Gelderloos had actually done his job and looked into these things, he would have found that criticism of pacifists by pacifists is entirely commonplace. A good historical overview can be found in chapter six of Andrew Cornell’s Unruly Equality: U.S. Anarchism in the Twentieth Century. Muste himself argued that it is “ludicrous, and perhaps hypocritical” that we should concern ourselves with “the ten percent of violence employed by the rebels against oppression” instead of “the violence on which the present system is based” (page 160 of American Power and the New Mandarins, by Noam Chomsky).

Gelderloos the historian

Gelderloos’ grasp on historical research is poor. His account of Gandhi’s 1922 decision to cease the non-cooperation movement campaign (in response to the Chauri Chaura incident) relies on exactly one source: an email exchange he had with “Professor Gopal K.”. It is not explained what this email actually said, who “Gopal K.” is, or where he teaches – a Google search for “professor Gopal K” reveals dozens of potential matches – but Gelderloos considers it satisfactory enough to use in a published book.

Another example of Gelderloos’ poor historical writing could be his claim that SNCC leader John Lewis’ speech at the 1963 March on Washington was “censored to take out threads of armed struggle”. This is outright false. It is totally true that Lewis was forced to modify his speech by march organisers like M.L.K., Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph, but there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that it was edited to remove threats of armed struggle. The unedited draft of Lewis’ speech is publicly available here for all to check themselves.

Lewis’ draft includes no threats of violence. On the contrary, it includes explicitly nonviolent phrases. Lewis speaks of the demands of “the nonviolent revolution”. His rhetoric is fiery, but at no point does he threaten violence or even suggest it. He outright says that “we shall pursue or own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground – non-violently”. I don’t know if Gelderloos is outright lying or if he’s just a bad researcher, but either way, his claim should not be included in any decent book.

A disappointment

It’s a pity really, because there needs to be much more discussion about the relationship between violence and anarchism. As I said, I am not a pacifist, and think violence is perfectly justifiable in quite a lot of circumstances. I’m the last person to condemn someone for, say, fighting a strikebreaker. It’s just that Gelderloos’ book helps nobody. I can only imagine so many people love this book because it flatters their pre-existing opinions. There are much better anarchist arguments against pacifism out there; I think the best can be found in the essays of Malatesta. People interested in critical engagement with pacifism and nonviolence would be best to seek those out, instead of turning to Gelderloos’ lousy polemic.

Posted By

Jan 9 2019 22:20


  • There needs to be much more discussion about the relationship between violence and anarchism [...] but Gelderloos' book helps nobody.


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Jan 9 2019 15:58

The name of the writer of "Ḧow Non-violence Protects the State" is Gelderloos, not Gederloos. Otherwise, a sensible review.

Jan 9 2019 23:00

This is a sloppily written response to the book and is pretty much unworthy of consideration. Gelderloos's book should be read by all serious Lib-coms

Jan 9 2019 23:28

Can you please elaborate SuperN0vaCK? Which parts of this review do you disagree with?

Jan 10 2019 06:53

Peter Gelderloos goes into more depth about the distinction between different schools of pacifist and non-violent thought and responds to many other criticisms in the full length book 'the failure of nonviolence', which I highly recommend reading, instead of the pamphlet length and less refined / more outdated 'how non violence protects the state' (which did recieve a lot of criticism and analysis, even just going by the articles cited later on by Gelderloos on the subject!).

It is true he focuses most of his attention on a certain style of non violence (even in this latter work), that is due to the fact it was, and isthe dominant one amongst 'activist' mobilisations, and the one most often put forward by in the media. It's focused on as its the most important for us to understand and to counter. It is for example the same framework used by rising up / extinction rebellion.

Jan 10 2019 11:02

I haven't read it, but it sounds like Gelderloos' pamphlet just rehashes the lazy arguments made by Ward Churchill in 'Pacifism as Pathology', and by Derrick Jensen in books like 'Engame'. It would be easy, so easy, to throw together a similar pamphlet on how violence by militants serves the state. It only takes a handful of militants attacking cops or smashing windows in an action that was designed and planned to be nonviolent, to give the corporate media the images they need to decimate public support for the campaign and the cause that action was meant to support.

Choices about tactics needs to be made in the context of the situation a group is in, what they're willing and able to do, and how the available tactics might serve or undermine their strategic goals. For anarchists, this must include our larger strategic goal of bringing about a world without hierarchy and inequality - in other words without systemic violence - and our belief that means create ends, rather than ends justifying means (as Leninists et al tend to believe).

This is also true at a personal level. It took being beaten half to death by three chaos punks at a party to make me realize that not all use (or threat) of force is violence, and that sometimes force can be used to *prevent* violence. As soon as I was sufficiently recovered from my injuries I started attending a class in classical yang style Tài-jí-quán (Tai Chi as a martial art). I have never yet had to use my training to prevent a violent attack against myself or anyone else, but I would now have no hesitation in doing so. Yet I remain committed to nonviolence in my own approach to revolutionary change.

Mike Harman
Jan 10 2019 12:06

I haven't read the whole Gelderloos book, but there is a chapter on Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan (which I did read online) which absolutely demolishes their research - showing it has incredibly politically motivated, having no definition of violence, and using incredibly poor data (i.e. the 'non violent' movements include movements that had violent incidents/wings, and the 'violent' movements only include wars).

Chenoweth's work is in turn used by people like Steven Pinker to push incredibly reactionary narratives. So I think emphasising a critique of the actual 'non-violence' stuff being pushed by NGOs (one of the Why Civil Resistance Works authors is ex US State Department too) is a lot more important than giving a fair shake to all pacifist movements in history.

R Totale
Jan 10 2019 13:19

"I haven't read it, but it sounds like Gelderloos' pamphlet just rehashes the lazy arguments..."

I mean, I guess we've all been guilty of this at one time or another, but maybe actually read the book before casting judgement on how lazy its arguments are?

Henry Laws
Jan 13 2019 00:34

Mike, could you provide a link to the critique of Chenowerth and Stephan's book you mentioned?

Mike Harman
Jan 14 2019 21:11

It's not from the actual book it seems, but from a shorter pamphlet maybe, or perhaps I found a different link before, but anyway chapter 3 of this discusses it: https://web.stanford.edu/group/peacejustice/Gelderloos-Failure-of-Nonviolence.pdf

Jan 16 2019 20:56

When the first sentence of a review, after the introduction, centers around a flat-out lie, it's usually a good indication not to take the review seriously.

Sherbu-kteer writes, "The most striking element of Gelderloos’ book is his complete lack of engagement with pacifist or nonviolent literature." On the contrary, I quote or refer directly to multiple literary proponents of pacifism and nonviolence. S-k tacitly acknowledges this when they criticize me for how I interpret certain writings by David Dellinger and AJ Muste. One thing is being dissatisfied with how I engage with certain texts. Another thing is lying to potential readers by claiming I do not engage at all with the literature.

Although my subsequent book on the topic, The Failure of Nonviolence, deals more extensively with some of the literature of nonviolence, particularly the writings of Gene Sharp, I think I am rather clear from the beginning of How Nonviolence Protects the State that the work is not a philosophical dissertation but a polemic arising from debates in the actual movement. Though S-k apparently does not question the elitism of the written word that is a sacred value in academic circles, in street protests and organizing meetings, people don't usually justify their attitudes and practices by thumbing through old copies of Liberation.

The arguments I express in the book are based on countless debates, arguments, and conversations. If in S-k's mind this makes me a bad historian, I quite frankly shit on their elitist concept of historiography. To mention just one example, they snidely reduce my citation of an argument on an email list to something as trivial as a Facebook post. In fact, the email list in question was an organizing forum for one of the most important environmental campaigns on the East Coast in the last two decades. The person I cited had, at the time of my writing, considerable power in activist circles.

Another example of S-k's manipulation is where they claim some kind of a contradiction in me citing one pacifist's awareness of potential problems with racism. Throughout the book, I repeatedly acknowledge that there are many different kinds of proponents of nonviolence, and I also refer to some pacifists who I greatly admire. I could go through and provide quotes, but frankly I think it's a waste of time to respond so thoroughly to someone who so clearly has a propensity for dishonesty.

One element in the book that I should acknowledge facilitates misreading is the anger with which it is written. I continue to believe both that the anger was justified, given the sorts of things that were happening in the streets, and because I reject the patriarchal, upper-class, and white supremacist mode that pretends towards some kind of separation between emotions and intellect. However, I also recognize that the book can be an uncomfortable read for some people who believe in nonviolence but don't fall into the pitfalls I critique. Such people could certainly feel that my critiques are unfair. Nonetheless, I am confident that in every instance I was critiquing very real dynamics, both because I was writing from personal experience, and because the most common comment I have received from readers in how dynamics described in the book mirrored their own experiences.

Finally, regarding the "cult" following S-k alleges to exist around the book. This is probably just another example of them being loose with language in order to discredit the object of their harangue. The fact that they claim the book has "cult popularity" and then in the very next sentence admit that "radicals of all stripes" appreciate the book shows how inconsequential they are with their arguments (cults are usually not know for ideological diversity).

But just in case someone out there takes this book or any other work of mine as the object for cultish devotion, I will say this: kill your idols. Heroes or leaders will inevitably disappoint you. Any idiot can write a book, and books by no means are the most important tools in our struggle. Don't put people on pedestals. Pay more attention to the wisdom of those around you, and take good care of your comrades.

Peter (G)