Seeing the History of Human Freedom (Dustin Howes’s Second Post)

Here is Dustin Howes’s second post:

In this post I will address the historical arguments John forwards in his posts Defending Freedom and Collective Self-Rule.

Anthony Parel once remarked that Gandhi had been “taken over by nonviolence,” a striking point about our inability to see the full measure of his political thought. Similarly, nonviolence has been overtaken by the Indian Independence movement and the American Civil rights movement, obscuring our ability to see the full measure of its historical significance. I discuss both but place them in the context of larger trends. To do otherwise distorts our understanding of how political power has been exercised more generally. My argument in the book is that it has largely obscured the struggles that have gained freedom for many millions of people.

The three pillars of the nonviolent movement for freedom over the last two centuries are the abolitionist, women’s rights, and prodemocracy movements. The worldwide abolitionist movement was almost entirely nonviolent and indeed central to innovating the concept of what was then called nonresistance. I discuss the two important exceptions of the Haitian revolution and the American Civil War, but the organized efforts of committed, creative, relentless nonviolent activists is what brought an end to the most lucrative slave system in the history of the world. These activists succeeded in making slavery a signature moral evil and for the first time in history making it illegal everywhere. The women’s rights movement was born from women participating in abolition. With similar techniques and new innovations, feminists continue a worldwide struggle that achieved astonishing results. Without a single violent revolution, the women’s movement has already advanced freedom for more people than all the violent revolutions combined. Finally, prodemocracy, people power movements have toppled some of the most brutal regimes of the past century. The Velvet revolutions and the Arab Spring are perhaps the most prominent examples, but from Bosnia to Chile to the Philippines to South Africa nonviolence has spread democracy more effectively than violence. A potential fourth pillar is the labor movement, which I discuss extensively but has a complicated relationship to violence and nonviolence.

John asks if the organizations of voluntary collective self-rule that are the lifeblood of power require states that nourish them or at least allow them to exist. The answer is clearly no. In fact, they can form in the face of the most brutal attempts to stomp them out. They also transcend state boundaries and transform states. Regimes, laws, structures, armies, have all proven to be malleable to nonviolence, which is just to say the exercise of power by people without violence.

I discuss the Civil War in the book, but to address John’s point directly. The idea that the alternative to war was ” waiting” for the slaves to be free is strange and ahistorical. The reason the South seceded is because abolitionists were succeeding. The underground railroad in combination with making the international slave trade illegal, put tremendous pressure on the Southern economy. The idea that the Civil War accelerated the end of slavery is certainly the conventional wisdom, but half a million people dead, abolition the world over without violence, and the horrors of the post reconstruction backlash should give us pause.

Without reiterating the details of the first two chapters, I feel compelled to underscore some of the main points when it comes to the history of slavery. The Haitian revolution is the only successful large scale slave rebellion in the history of the world. Even uprisings of tens of thousands of people had all failed. Freeing the slaves of one’s opponents in warfare is a common occurrence historically and the American Civil War is another example of that. But none of the previous examples were part of a movement to make slavery itself illegal. The idea of ending slavery and the political process of passing the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments ended slavery as much as the war. Both were unimaginable until abolitionists articulated and struggled for them.

Without reiterating the details of the argument I make in my first book, I want to underscore some of the main points as they link up with the new one. John asks if Britain “was wrong to fight the Nazis.” My argument is not that all violence is unjust. Nor do I argue that violence is always ineffective. Instead, I stipulate that violence can be just and politically effective. My argument is that nonviolence shows that violence is never necessary. This is a consequence of freedom and also means that violence, even if politically effective, cannot ultimately forward the particular cause of human freedom. If there is a tragic aspect to the history of freedom, it lies in the quixotic efforts to achieve freedom with violence because it appears violence is the only option. In fact, it never is. As John reminds us in another post, the Nazis were fighting for freedom too.

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