the pacifist and anarchist tradition



Geoffrey Ostergaard (1926-1990), senior lecturer in government at Birmingham University for most of his academic career, was himself both an anarchist and a pacifist. A member of the PPU and sometime Chair of Peace News Trustees, he was a notable contributor to anarchist and pacifist scholarship, in particular through The Gentle Anarchists (1971) and Nonviolent Revolution in India (1985).

Resisting the Nation State questions the assumption that the nation-state is the 'norm of modern political organisation'. The essay looks at two traditions of political thought and action which have challenged over many centuries the concept of absolute sovereignty of institutions over individuals and the supposed right of such institutions to coerce individuals to fight in war. The connection, as well as distinction between pacifism and conscientious objection is discussed, as is also the reltionship between anarchism and socialist and liberal thought. Pacifism and anarchism are shown to converge in the latter-day 'nonviolent revolution', whereby a truly human community is rediscovered at all levels from the global to the local.


1. pacifism, pacificism and anti-militarism
2. sectarian origins of pacifism
3. pacificism and the peace movement
5. conscription and the nation state
6. the co formula
7. anarchism as a social movement
8. anarchism as a tradition of political thought
9. society and the state
10. the anarchist view of the state
11. the anarchist view of the nation and of nationalism
12. anarchism and violence
13. convergence of pacifism and anarchism

Suggestions, comments
let us know











'The nation-state', writes A D Smith, 'is the norm of modern political organisation...It is the almost unquestioned foundation of world order, the main object of individual loyalties, the chief definer of a man's identity...It permeates our outlook so much that we hardly question its legitimacy today.' (1)
To most readers, Smith's generalisations may appear as statements of the obvious. But it would be a mistake to suppose that the legitimacy of the nation state has never been seriously questioned or even that it is not so questioned today. The strong tide that has flowed in the direction of the nation state has been resisted from the start, and this essay looks at two traditions of political thought and action which have been 'against the current'.
The first, pacifism, may be seen as the ideology and movement that has resisted an institution closely related to the development of the nation-state: it challenges the right of the state to engage in, and conscript its citizens for, war. The nature of this challenge is exemplified in the statement issued by the No Conscription Fellowship, the British organisation of conscientious objectors to military service in the First World War. Affirming their belief in the sacredness of human life, its members, the statement declared, 'deny the right of governments to say, "You shall bear arms"...They will, whatever the consequences, obey their conscientious convictions rather than the commands of governments.' (2)
The second, anarchism, is even more radical: it challenges not merely the nation state's right to make war, but also its very right to exist. The central thrust of anarchism is directed against all the core elements that make up the nation state: its territoriality with the accompanying notion of frontiers; its sovereignty, implying exclusive jurisdiction over all people and property within those frontiers; its monopolistic control of the major means of physical force by which it upholds that sovereignty, both internally and externally; its system of positive law which overrides all other law and custom, and which implies that rights exist only if sanctioned by the state; and finally, the element that was added last - the idea of the nation as the paramount political community.


In discussing pacifism some clarification of terms is necessary. The word 'pacifist' was coined (as recently as 1901) to refer to all those who opposed war and worked to create or maintain peace between nations. This broad sense of the term is still current, but in Anglo-American usage, 'pacifist' has the narrower meaning in which it refers to those whose opposition to war takes the form of refusing personally to take part in it or support it. Such persons, for reasons which will become clear, have also usually opposed all overt violence between human beings, though not necessarily the covert violence, usually referred to as 'force', the kind used by police. 'Pacificist' is perhaps the more appropriate term to convey the broader meaning. 'Pacificists' may support the use of military forces in 'peace-keeping' operations, whereas 'pacificists' are generally 'anti-militarists'. However, not all anti-militarists are pacifists. Historically, anti-militarism is associated with the belief that most modern wars are fought in the interests of ruling classes, such as feudal lords or capitalists. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before socialist parties controlled any states, many socialists were anti-militarists and some socialist leaders, such as Keir Hardie, were also pacifists. The socialist anti-militarist might, if he were not a pacifist, when war broke out, join the army in the hope that thereby he could speed the downfall of capitalism, perhaps by spreading disaffection among the troops and persuading them, if a revolutionary situation arose, to use their weapons against their class enemies. In practice, 'pacificism', 'pacifism' and 'anti-militarism' often overlap, but the terms do stand for fairly distinct orientations.



  P E A C E  P L E D G E  U N I O N  1 Peace Passage London N7 0BT, Britain.
  phone  +44 (0)20 7424 9444  fax: +44 (0)20 7482 6390     CONTACT US