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The Pacifist Party: a political experiment in commuterland
The Pacifist Party: a political experiment in commuterland
Abstract In Western democracies, political parties seem to be in a state of minor crisis. They are no longer mass membership organisations, they are viewed with deep scepticism, and although they are tolerated as the only electoral mechanisms around, they no longer appear to be flexible enough to respond to the needs and wishes of the electorate. The decline of political parties has meant that the politically engaged tend to express themselves through single-issue campaigns. This has led to an increasingly narrow focus of political activity and made consensus more difficult to achieve. Against this background, this article looks at a new initiative to organise a political party with a holistic view of politics, economics and human relations. The article finds hope in this initiative but also draws upon the experience of the Greens to warn against the danger of co-option by power-hungry ideologues.
Keywords: Political parties, Socialism, Democracy
Political parties are not very popular these days. This statement, or some would say understatement, applies to the “developed” countries, where whatever their faults parliamentary institutions are entrenched. Across the world, there are many thousands, probably millions of articulate, thoughtful and principled men and women who would long to be able openly to join a party. Living under dictatorships or kleptocracies, or in broken nations that have reverted to a “war of every man against every man”, they are forced into exile, or secret cabals, or at best single-issue campaigns that act as fronts for something larger. In the West, by contrast, active disillusionment is most widespread amongst the best educated, most articulate and, in a wider sense, the most politicised. They consciously avoid political parties, preferring issue-based campaigns and direct action of varying degrees of intensity. Many others decide, effectively, to depoliticise themselves. The revival of interest in spirituality of various forms among the young and educated is partly a response to the absence of political ideals and the apparent intractability of political problems.
In the “developed” democracies, a vicious circle has evolved. Those who are natural reformers reject traditional politics because it is unrepresentative and opportunistic. This widens the “democratic deficit” and makes party politics seem still more irrelevant and, fairly frequently, repellent and grotesque. Less directly, but still powerfully, the deficit plays into the hands of Western democracy’s critics, such Islamists, who believe, like the far left, that parliamentary institutions are a convenient façade for an unrepresentative élite. Political parties are derided, rightly, for their inflexibility and failure to “connect” with the wider society. However the proliferation of single-issue movements can be seen in many ways as a retreat instead of an advance. For single-issue campaigns can balkanise a political culture. Sometimes they do so quite literally, when the campaigns revolve around race, religion, sex or sexual preference. The impact of such divisions on US society has worried many Americans, conservative or liberal, who are committed to democratic values and political moderation. “Identity politics” polarise society, make consensus hard to achieve and contribute to the rise of illiberal tendencies, from “political correctness” on the left to evangelical bigotry on the right.
Similar trends to those of the USA are becoming apparent in Britain, and to a lesser extent continental Europe. Party politics and electoral participation have declined, but the atmosphere of politics as a whole has become more zealous and fanatical. This does not mean that there is any credible big idea, like twentieth century socialism. The ideologies of today’s politics are in the main negative. Neoliberal economics is in practice little more than free-market fundamentalism, entrusting political and moral conduct to a mysterious “hidden hand”. The left, meanwhile, tends to be more “against” than “for” – it is more “anti-war” than it is pro-peace, more “anti-racist” than it is for the human race, more “anti-globalisation” than it is for a balance between the global and the local. This negativity and nihilism augurs badly for democratic politics, it was the stuff of which fascist movements were made. As party politics declines, political parties take on more of the characteristics of single-issue campaigns. They are turning from broad-based coalitions into narrow bands of activists who believe their own slogans and dogmas, rival cliques that communicate vituperatively with each other like extremist “groupuscles” or millenarian sects.
Paradoxically, therefore, the decline of party politics has accentuated the worst characteristics of that system: its adversarial character, its cliquishness, its reliance on sound bites, its personality cults and personal animosities. Our democracies might be stable, at least superficially so, but there is an underlying anxiety about the direction of politics which we would be wise to address before we talk too loudly or triumphantly about exporting the Western model. Party politics is in crisis, but we might need more of it, rather than less, if we are to rebalance our politics and transcend past divisions. Single-issue campaigns and identity-based movements point towards a cultural and emotional dead-end. They express at best only partial truths and they militate against civilised discourse. A more generous, more truly inclusive politics will be more easily achieved when the disillusioned but politically interested reengage with the party system and take it in new directions.
It was with such thoughts in mind that I met the principal organiser of the Pacifist Party, John Morris, a retired geography teacher based at Guildford, Surrey, and the most affable and welcoming of political campaigners I have ever met. Guildford is at once an historic cathedral city and a commuter town within easy reach of London. In many ways, it epitomises “Middle England” or at least Middle southern England: solidly, almost stereotypically middle-class, politically moderate, with a tolerant, genial population and a fair number of concerned citizens. There are many voluntary organisations with dedicated members and there are two flourishing theatres, yet as in most other places, the familiar, interconnected social problems – family breakdown, mental illness, drug abuse and homelessness – may be found if one looks for them. Towns and cities like this were solidly conservative in their voting patterns for much of the twentieth century, but now are almost as likely to return Liberal Democrat MPs, as Guildford did in 2001. There is, therefore, a large block of essentially centrist voters, socially conscious, in most cases conservative with a small “c”, who feel politically unrepresented and concerned about the direction of government policy, not least the war in Iraq and its aftermath.
The founders of the new party were mostly Quakers, members of the Religious Society of Friends, who have a long and honourable tradition of opposing armed conflict, and helping those caught up in it: the Friends Ambulance Service played an invaluable role in both world wars. However the party now has members of many faiths, and none, who share its founding principles. Set up as the “Pacifist Campaign” in 1996, it became a fully-fledged political organisation in 2000, when it was launched officially as “The Pacifist Party – Peace, Co-operation, Environment”. It has stood in local government and parliamentary elections, and won hundreds, rather than thousands of votes, to date. Yet that is in itself an achievement, with an unsympathetic “first past the post” electoral system and in a region that is almost wholly unaccustomed to minority parties.
To many readers, a “pacifist party” might seem to be little more than another single-issue movement. However as John Morris explained to me, the idea of the party is not only to raise the profile of peace in the electoral arena, but also to encourage us to rethink the whole way we “do” politics. This seems logical enough. Clausewitz’s dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means is trotted out constantly by historians and commentators. Often, the reverse is true as well. In the early 1990s, I spent time in Uruguay as a research student. There, the two main parties, the Colorados and the Blancos, evolved out of rival military factions and the electoral system emerged from a series of treaties. In countries closer to home, such as Ireland and Israel, former resistance fighters have built successful careers as democratic politicians. Much of political life has the flavour of low-level warfare about it. All too frequently, the emphasis is less on the pursuit of truth or justice, more on “winning” and “scoring points” at whatever personal or social cost. As in war – and Iraq is a good example here – winning becomes an end in itself, to the extent that those “fighting” elections forget what they are “fighting” for and the victors have no idea what to do with their victory.
The emphasis on combat and struggle makes modern politics meaningless and morally vacuous. It leads politicians and “activists” to act with cynical disregard for fellow human beings, and creates an atmosphere of disillusionment and despair. In Britain, this emphasis on struggle and victory is exacerbated by a system that is uncompromisingly adversarial. The need to remain “ahead” of “opponents” far outweighs considerations of principle. It is a politics that allows no time for thought, that favours sterile “debate” over reflection and encourages manic restlessness in place of calm and stability. Such an off-centred approach does not provide the friendliest atmosphere for a pacifist party. Indeed British politics these days is not the most naturally friendly place for anyone unless they are shrilly certain, and at the same time ruthless, and underhand. We speak routinely of the “cut and thrust” of political life. That casual, throwaway phrase brings us straight to the heart of the problem.
According to the party’s founding statement, pacifists are those who:
Show love and respect for all life.
Are people who are caring and compassionate to all.
Value unconditionally every member of our community.
Are non-violent – they: always work to resolve conflict in peaceful ways, do not opt for physical force or confrontation in any circumstances, refuse to take life, to threaten to take life, whatever the provocation, will not allow life to be taken by another, refuse to injure, or allow someone else to injure, another in any way.
Acknowledge and observe all human rights.
Are committed to take responsibility for every other individual and group in society.
Are committed to peaceful coexistence with our environment.
Have real hope for the future.
From this, it follows that:
The Pacifist Party campaigns to challenge each elector to examine where she or he stands on violence in our society before they vote for parliaments and councils in Britain and Europe.
Pacifists recognise that it might appear hard to adopt a completely non-violent approach to living. But the examples of the lives of many people, well-known and unknown, around the world and over the last 2,000 years or so testify to the rightness of the non-violent way of life.
This set of principles is very different from the party politics of sound bite and empty promise. It implies a holistic approach, based on thinking around problems and issues rather than imposing dogmatic blueprints. It also implies respect for the individual. That does mean the two-dimensional individualism of the market fundamentalists, but regard for the individual as a full human being, with social, cultural and spiritual needs, a valued member of a wider human community. The party’s principles implicitly reject both the neo-liberal and the Marxist reduction of human beings to mere economic units. They are conservative principles, in that they are based around conserving life and preserving human communities, but they are not inflexible or narrow-minded, like too much of “large-C” conservatism. In short, the Pacifist Party’s raison d’être seems to be diametrically opposed to that of other political parties. They exist as “machines” to win, retain and centralise power. The Pacifist Party’s aim, by contrast, is the decentralisation, dispersal and ultimate abolition of power. Unlike other parties, it appeals beyond sectional interests, whether these take the form of nationalistic or corporate interests on the right, or patronising, “politically correct” pressure groups on the left. The Pacifist Party’s programme is inchoate at present, but it points towards human-scale, self-governing communities, as economically self-sufficient as possible, based on small-scale enterprise and co-operative endeavour, rather than big corporations and big government. Equally, the party’s principles point towards respect for local and cultural diversity, towards a politics of friendship and loyalty in place of right-wing selfishness, or left-wing love of humanity and contempt for real human beings. The Pacifist Party is thereby more than pacifist, it is a party of the human scale.
But the party’s principles go well beyond the immediate needs of human beings to encompass an ecological world view. This is based on the interconnectedness of all life forms rather than the radical separation of humanity from nature that has been the basis of most modern and especially Western political thought. There is much in the Pacifist agenda that accords with Christian principles of forgiveness, reconciliation and peacemaking. However the party’s philosophy also calls to mind the principle of ahimsa, or “non-injury” that has deep roots in Indian culture, predating the Vedic era and so older than Hinduism as we now understand it. Ahimsa is one of the vows undertaken by the Jains, who trace their religion’s origins to pre-Vedic times, but it has also profoundly influenced Hindus, notably in the modern era through its adoption by Mahatma Gandhi. Indeed Gandhi seems to be a powerful underlying influence on the Pacifist Party’s thinking. The party’s support for human scale communities, small schools and local production for local need matches Gandhi’s conception of Swadeshi, which can be translated as self-sufficiency or self-reliance. Swadeshi had at its basis the village, or human-scale community, but was to be based not on isolation but interdependence, between individuals and between communities:
[I]ndependence must begin at the bottom. Thus every village will be a republic … having full powers. It follows, therefore, that every village has to be self-sustained and capable of managing its affairs. Thus, ultimately, it is the individual who is the unit. This does not exclude dependence on and willing help from neighbours or from the world … In this structure composed of innumerable villages, there will be ever-widening, never-ascending circles. Life will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom.
In practice, post-independence India relied too heavily on top-down development accompanied by Western ideologies of progress and growth as ends in themselves. Only now, when these twentieth century notions look increasingly threadbare, is there a revival of interest in Swadeshi and associated concepts, including ahimsa. The connections between ancient wisdom of the East and the most recent conclusions of Western science are becoming more and more apparent. Today’s Western science reveals underlying continuities rather than separation, cycles of continuity and change instead of the narrow, linear progression on which the assumptions of the previous industrial epoch were based. As a result, there is an increasing interest in the connections between spirituality and science, which a culture that was rationalist to the point of unreason has long denied.
The reconnection of spirituality and politics is long overdue as well. Spirituality in this context does not mean formal religion, and it certainly does not mean the doctrinaire certainties of the “religious right”, nor the equally strident “religious left”, nor any type of fundamentalism. These phenomena are not spiritual at all, but manifestations of the one-sided materialism that has bedevilled politics. Most of the violence committed against our fellow human beings, other creatures and the earth itself stems from uncompromising materialism. A reconnection of the spiritual and the political means recognising that material satisfaction is part of a much larger picture, that genuine fulfilment means balancing material needs with the conservation of resources, economics with culture, modernity with tradition, necessary work with creative leisure. That approach leads us logically towards a politics of non-injury, ahimsa, and towards values associated reflection and calm instead of stress, struggle and incessant, vacuous noise.
This type of politics, the politics of ahimsa, is where the Pacifist Party might well be headed. Or, to put it another way, the Pacifist Party is one example of a larger search that is still largely subterranean but growing nonetheless and soon to reach the surface of political consciousness. John Morris assures me that the Pacifist Party is neither left nor right. I have suggested to him that he should define it positively as beyond left and right, but that furthermore he should make it abundantly clear that it will not be co-opted by the left. This last point might sound negative and would seem to fall below the ideal of inclusion. Nonetheless, it is necessary as a concession to realpolitik for two reasons. First, the peace movement in Britain has been weakened by its association with the left. Although left-wing activism has produced impressive mass rallies, it has estranged the peace movement from the middle ground of politics and confined it to a cultural ghetto. The association with the left has therefore prevented even the most principled and tireless campaigners for peace from making more than a modest indentation in political consciousness, a ripple rather than a tide. It has made “peaceniks” an object of widespread ridicule and led to their integrity being impugned, often rightly, because of the contradictions and doublethink that the alliance with the left has required.
During the Cold War years, the peace movement compromised itself by its almost exclusive focus on Western nuclear weapons and its silence, or near silence, on the weapons of the Soviet. Similarly, the violence and atrocities of so-called “liberation” movements have been, and still are, viewed with relative indulgence and excused where possible. Protests against the war in Iraq are festooned with posters of Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush with lines through their faces. There have been no similar posters depicting Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. I pointed out to John Morris that the demonstrations against Bush’s visit to London were not followed by protests against the suicide bombs in Istanbul the next day. He told me that he was planning to organise a “small vigil” and seemed painfully aware of the anti-war protesters’ duplicity. Detached from left-wing hypocrisy, the movement for peace could play a constructive, positive role in finding alternatives to the use of force. Without the Socialist Worker banners, it would be able to reach the mainstream and transform it.
There is a second pragmatic reason why the Pacifist Party should define itself away from the left. A quarter of a century ago, Green politics began with many noble intentions similar to the Pacifists: a more holistic approach to politics and society, decentralisation, non-violence, and respect for all life. The aim was to create a “new paradigm”, transcending past divisions. Yet the very openness and fluidity of the early Green movement proved its undoing. For quickly, it became a vehicle for left-wing activists who sought a fashionable new platform from which to expound their failed ideas. The result is that today, in most parts of Europe and North America, Green parties position themselves uncompromisingly on the left, speak the language of struggle and practise the politics of “either you’re with us or against us”. Holistic approaches, and the aim to be “neither left nor right, but in front” have been tossed ignominiously to the wind. This is why the Green movement has been the greatest disappointment of the previous generation in politics. It began with good intentions and great promise, but has offered in practice only recycled forms of old politics, “red” militancy in environmentally friendly “green” wrapping paper. The co-option of the green movement should serve as a warning to the fledgling new party.
These two pragmatic reasons for distance from the left both overlap with a principled reason. For the radical left, pacifism is merely a convenient, and occasional, tool in the struggle for power. Since early 2003, the focus of opposition to the war in Iraq has been the Stop the War Coalition. Stop the War’s campaign is characterised by images of blood and the demonisation of individual politicians. There is no attempt to search for paths towards peace, because there is no genuine interest in peace. Many of the “anti-war” slogans are openly violent and obscene. This is hardly surprising, given that the coalition is effectively a fiefdom of the Socialist Workers Party. This organisation is committed explicitly to violent, confrontational politics and adopts the strategy and tactics of a classic fascist movement. It is a moot point, incidentally, whether fascism is a movement of right or left; the Italian Fascisti emerged from left-wing syndicalism and leading Nazis took very seriously the “Socialist” in National Socialist. The Pacifist Party participates in Stop the War in the hope of “reaching” a wider public. Instead there are signs that this has already begun to affect the party’s principles. One newsletter calls on people to demonstrate to “show their anger”, although anger is surely the cause of political violence, indeed the underlying problem that the party was set up to address. Association with movements founded on bad faith is never a short cut to political breakthrough, but a sure route to corruption and oblivion.
A new party is needed, a party of the human scale, committed to non-violence, and prepared to do some deep and difficult thinking about human and ecological problems. The Pacifist Party is a courageous and delightfully unexpected attempt to fill that gap. To succeed it needs clarity of vision as well as flexibility, quiet obduracy as well as tolerance.
John Morris can be contacted by e-mail (email@example.com).
Aidan RankinLondon, UK
Notes1. At this time of writing (December 2003), the party is in the process of changing its name to the Peace Party – Non-violence, Justice, Environment.2. There is one other political party in the UK committed officially to pacifist values, the Fellowship Party, based in South London and established in the 1950s.