Non-violence is not the same thing as pacifism, Mark Kurlansky reminds us; it is active opposition to violence or oppression by such non-violent means as demonstrations, sit-ins, argument, litigation and a variety of other peaceful endeavours. A model is provided by the Maori ploughing campaign in late 19th century New Zealand, under the leadership of chief Te Whiti: in a section of the North Island where the Maoris were permitted to live, they sought to recover their land by ploughing all of it, including the white man’s fields, and when soldiers arrived to stop the ploughing they were met by singing girls offering flowers.

Cover of Non-Violence by Mark KurlanskyThis is a brave book with a noble purpose, a good book in its manner, matter and morality. Throughout history the world has groaned under the tyranny of warfare and strife; paucity of imagination, annexed to violence’s other potent adjutants – fury, impatience, hatred, desire for revenge, greed and lust – has meant that there have been far too few who have sought the peaceful way to their ends. So long as someone else has a sword or a gun in his hand, we feel the need of the same. The result is obscenity – from armies with tanks and missiles, supersonic jet fighters, cluster-bombs and land-mines, killing soldiers and civilians by the thousands, to the plague of hand-guns used to murder American school-children almost every week.

Kurlansky gives an elegantly concise history of religious attitudes to war and peace, and the perversion of them from the latter to the former when co-opted to political purposes by states. As it happens he is far too kind to religion in its nascent forms, for he would have us believe that the Israelites were reluctant in carrying out their many wars and massacres in Old Testament times (a reading of the texts decidedly suggests otherwise; and their volcano deity – he who appeared as fire on the mountain top and a pillar of smoke by day – certainly set a paradigmatic example in both respects) that Christian relish for Crusades and the torture and murder of heretics is an unnatural graft on to the peace-loving early stock; and that Islam would be untrammelled sweetness and light if the Meccans had not attacked the Prophet in his Medina stronghold, or if Jews local to that city had not irritated him into massacre by rising against him.

Disagreeing with Kurlansky’s concessive attitude to the religions is not the same as disputing his account of history as a tale of defeated aspirations to non-violence. On this score he is right, and encouragingly so. Many good-hearted people, religious and otherwise, have striven to avoid violent conflict, to find peaceful solutions, to resist with weapons of the mind, tongue, heart and spirit, in noble preference to knives and bullets.

Some of the standard heroes of this story, most notably Mahatma Ghandi, work better in legend than the cold light of history, according to critics: Ghandi urged non-violence in 1941 as the Japanese approached the Indian border through Burma, in hopes – so the critics say – that British rule would be toppled by a successful Japanese invasion. Perhaps they mean to suggest a complexity of not quite the right kind for Ghandi’s pacifist credentials. But Kurlansky convincingly shows that non-violent revolution has indeed been successful: one example he cites is the American revolution’s earliest phase, in which crowds of demonstrators stymied British rule in Massachusetts without a shot being fired.

Better still as an example – for after all the American revolution quickly turned into a shooting war – are the events of 1989, toppling the cardboard cut-out regimes of Eastern Europe. These are a luminous case of the power – the great-than-guns power – of non-violence. Moreover they prompt the hope that peaceful transitions ensure better outcomes in the long term than violently imposed ones. In 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in Czechoslovakia the tank and the hobnailed soldier’s boot quelled reform; neither imposition endured, as 1989 proved.

Kurlansky’s historical survey proceeds through American abolitionism to nineteenth-century efforts to unite Europe, from the failure of peace efforts before the First World War to consideration of “everyone’s favourite just war”, the war of 1939-45. From all the efforts and failures he deduces twenty-five lessons about non-violence as the better way; the last of them is that “the hard work of beginning a movement to end war has already been done.”

There is one large question that some of Kurlansky’s readers, however passionately they might wish to agree with him, will feel is insufficiently answered. There will always be bad people who will seek to profit from others’ weaponlessness by using violence to oppress and coerce them. How, such readers will ask, can the bad be deterred from doing this unless through fear of being defeated by their own chosen means?

To ask this is to miss Kurlansky’s point: that non-violence is not merely a more moral but in fact a more effective way of meeting and defeating violence. It is odd that we can accept the need for courage to do battle with an enemy, but not the courage to stand bare-breasted before an enemy’s guns and gain the greater victory thereby. The point is inspirational: one longs to see it carry the day. ■

Non-Violence is published by Jonathan Cape