Tag Archives: Majken Jul Sørensen

The possibility of nonviolent resistance in the contemporary world

A review of “Pacifism Today: A Dialogue about Alternatives to War in Ukraine”by Majken Jul Sørensen, Irene Publishing, 2024, ISBN 978-91-88061-69-0

Review by Rob Fairmichael

The war in Ukraine, occasioned immediately by a Russian military attack to annex Ukraine, has persuaded some people of the impossibility of nonviolent resistance to such an attack. In this regard it is a bit similar to what happened in the 1930s with the Spanish Civil War. How could pacifism or nonviolence resist in such a situation?

One initial problem is that violence and nonviolence are seldom judged with the same criteria. The war in Ukraine has descended into a First World War-type conflict of attrition. People are realising that Putin can afford to keep throwing resources at the war – anything to avoid losing face – and throwing away lives. The effect at home, justifying repression, also suits Putin. The human, environmental and economic cost of the war, on all sides, is massive. And ‘the west’ has to some extent got tired of throwing military resources to Ukraine (and ‘President Trump’ could end US resources going there anyway). And yet very few are saying that perhaps resisting in this way was a mistake, or that settling early on in the war (when Ukraine was considered to be in the ascendant) should have taken place – the failure to do that was partly the fault of gung ho Boris Johnson in opposing any deal and I would say he has blood on his hands.

Thus ‘war’ as a methodology has not come into question despite the failure to kick Russia out of Ukraine or even its acquisitions in 2022.

Whether you call this publication, with 71 numbered pages, a pamphlet or a book is open to debate. It is short and written by Majken Jul Sørensen in the format of a dialogue (imagined) between a sceptic and herself on the issues involved. This is a useful approach even if sometimes I would feel the sceptic’s comments don’t quite ring true. But I am certainly not accusing the author of being disengenuous and this approach is primarily to provide a hook to hang her quite comprehensive comments on; the book will be judged on whether people are persuaded by Majken’s comments.

Early on Majken (which is how she gives her name before what she says) gives three reasons why she is a pacifist; “…I think it is wrong to kill other people….Second, the price people pay for fighting a war is simply too high…..However, most important is the third part of my answer: today we know a great deal about fighting with nonviolent means and it is irrational to ignore this knowledge…”

She deals with the difficulties in demonstrating publicly in repressive situations and I think more can be made of ‘flash mob’ type manifestations where something happens suddenly and then stops just as suddenly, before ‘security’ forces get there. She mentions ‘two minute strikes’ in Denmark under Nazi control – this may have been too short to have a logistical effect but it showed the widespread support for resistance; and during that war the Freedom Council concluded that strikes caused more damage to the German war effort than riots and sabotage. This all still requires audacity, organisation and skill. She gives some details on Norwegian Second World War resistance to the Quisling regime which was relatively successful while also difficult and dangerous. She emphasises the importance of local knowledge and being able to “read the political game”.

In talking about Chenoweth and Stephan’s 2011 publication “Why civil resistance works”, (see e.g. https://innatenonviolence.org/wp/2022/04/01/nonviolent-resistance-to-invasion-occupation-and-coups-detat/ which shows nonviolent resistance to be more effective than violent (based on 20th century case studies), a point I would add is that Chenoweth and Stephan were studying conflicts within states rather than international war. But a significant number of these were similar in outworking to an inter-state war, and the close relations (literally in the case of mixed Russian-Ukrainian families) between Russia and Ukraine means that they are hardly strangers battling it out from opposite sides of the globe.

Majken also looks at questions around non-lethal violence (e.g. sabotage and rioting) and concludes that “Sabotage and riots might…play a role when it prevents the occupier from having the calm that they long for” and while saying scholars of nonviolence need to look at this more closely she does state that “Maybe the less risky adoption of nonviolent methods without sabotage and riots can be sufficient to disturb the calm and keep the fighting spirit high.”

Unarmed resistance requires courage and sacrifice; there is no easy way to resist, as Majken discusses, and she looks at questions regarding nonviolent accompaniment and the possibilities, or lack of them for using this approach. Perhaps I can add a point previously made by Peter Emerson in these pages – what if such action or presence was engaged in by high profile actors – senior religious and civic figures – it might be both more possible and more effective.

As to whether a moral commitment to pacifism is necessary, or simply a belief in the effectiveness of nonviolence, Majken states “it will be easier for a movement to maintain nonviolent discipline if the refusal to harm comes from a moral belief….”

She correctly identifies NATO’s role in provoking Russia while agreeing that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a brutal act of aggression. She does warn of the dangers of ‘this’ war going on for a long time while also looking at how Putin could be brought down. I would say that sometimes, though we may not like the answer, the requirement is not only resistance but also significant periods of time to enable an opportunity to emerge; the ‘Prague spring’ nonviolent resistance to the Warsaw Pact (=Russian Communist) invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was partly successful – Gene Sharp puts its collapse down to political failings – but the Czechs and Slovaks had to wait another two decades and the popular resistance made possible by Gorbachev’s reforms before being able to throw off the yoke they were under. There are no instant magic wands, nonviolent or violent (violent resistance in Prague in 1968 would have led to catastrophic suffering for the Czechs).

Majken’s final chapter is on “Preparing for unarmed struggle”. This is important. Armies train to both be efficient using their weapons and for soldiers to be prepared to kill. Nonviolent resistance can be effective without preparation but potentially far more effective with it, and she gives a reading list for further learning and thought.

This is a timely publication which is based on the failure of the war machine – military, arms trade, media and above all political establishments – to resist war and its effects. In Gaza we see military speak used to attempt to justify the unjustifiable by Israel. And if you want to trace that back it partly comes from Israeli insecurity and Western guilt after the genocide of Jews by Nazi Germany. And the rise to power of Hitler was largely based on the treatment of Germany following the First World War, and that conflagration was the result of clashing military-imperial rivalries. I realise that this cause-and-effect linkage is simplistic but I would still argue it is correct. So where and how do we ‘break into history’ to say stop?

In the case of the war in Ukraine the time for real rapprochement with Russia was following the collapse of communism. Had ‘the west’ assisted Russia economically and provided other assistance then the authoritarian direction might have been halted. And while it might be counter-intuitive for some people to say eastern Europe would have been safer without NATO membership, NATO pushing towards Russia not only broke promises made after the fall of communism in Russia and eastern Europe but ignored Russia’s memory of Western invasions.

Nonviolent resistance is a vital way to break into history and change the future – in opposing dictatorial rule internally as well dealing with conflict internationally. Some other issues in this area, including in relation to Ireland, are discussed at https://innatenonviolence.org/wp/2022/04/01/nonviolent-resistance-to-invasion-occupation-and-coups-detat/ Majken Jul Sørensen’s book is an important contemporary contribution to the discussion about all of this and deserves widespread reading and discussion. If humanity is to survive on this small globe of ours then nonviolence and the development of nonviolent resistance is essential.

lIrene Publishing’s website is at https://irenepublishing.com/ and – among other items of interest – their list includes books on “Social Defence” by Jørgen Johansen and Brian Martin, on “Gandhi the organiser” by Bob Overy, Michael Randle on his and Pat Pottle’s trial for springing George Blake from prison in Britain, on constructive nonviolent action by Andrew Rigby, “To prevent or stop wars – What can peace movements do?” by Christine Schweitzer, and “Whistleblowing – A practical guide” by Brian Martin. As well, of course, as the above book in the review…..