Limitations of standard antiwar methods

from Brian Martin, Uprooting War (London: Freedom Press, 1984); this is the revised 1990 version.
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Over the centuries, many methods have been used to prevent or oppose war or reduce its severity. These include the establishment of powerful military forces, negotiations between governments, protests by community groups against particular weapons systems such as nuclear weapons, and refusals by individuals to be involved in any military-related activity. Do such methods merely treat symptoms of the war system, or do they contribute towards eliminating the roots of war?

The answer to this question depends on an analysis of the war system. This task I leave for later chapters. For now I take the war system to be an interlinking set of social structures including the state system, bureaucracy, military forces, science and technology, and patriarchy, among others. The symptoms of the war system include particular weapons systems such as neutron bombs and individual national elites such as the heads of the governments of the Soviet Union and of the United States.

I discuss here five approaches to the problem of war: military defence, social revolution, convincing elites, influencing elites via public pressure, and symbolic nonviolent action. Choosing only these five approaches simplifies the actual diversity of thought and action on the issue. My aim is not to survey all antiwar methods, but to critically examine some standard approaches with an eye towards their limitations in the task of confronting the roots as well as the symptoms of the war system.

Although my comments here on these methods are quite critical, that does not mean the methods are useless. Applying pressure to elites, for example, may not be enough to end war, but it still can be a useful part of an antiwar strategy. Since many people have used and promoted these methods, my aim is to present a bit of the other side of the picture. Pointing out the inadequacies as well as the strengths of standard methods is essential in building a sound strategy against war. The criticisms here also provide a rationale for the grassroots strategy outlined in later chapters.

Military defence

Military defence can provide a deterrent against the outbreak of war. But military defence provides absolutely no basis for eliminating the war system, and indeed helps perpetuate it. Among those who argue the need for military defence, there is no attention to strategies for eliminating war permanently. Essentially, war is seen to be an inevitable, if undesirable, feature of human society. War is seen to be a lesser evil compared to the weakening of national sovereignty, or compared to allowing the dominance of socialism, capitalism or some other enemy or evil.

Who are those who accept military defence without fundamental questioning? Military planners, of course, but also just about everyone else. Large numbers of those in 'antiwar movements' do not question military defence in any fundamental way. Some thinkers in peace movements favour a reduced number of nuclear weapons: 'minimum deterrence.' Even among those who want to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely, there is widespread (though usually unstated) support for conventional military defence .

Revolution first

Some revolutionary groups, such as some Marxist parties in Western countries, consider that abolition of war is something that will happen after 'the revolution.' But even the victory of revolutionary parties in countries throughout the world would be no guarantee of a world without war. Every variety of state socialism so far, including the Soviet, Chinese, Cuban and Vietnamese models, has resulted in an increased role for the military. Military confrontations, occupations and wars between socialist states are quite common, including Soviet Union-Hungary, Soviet Union-China, Soviet Union-Czechoslovakia and China-Vietnam. The proponents of socialist revolution led by vanguard parties have no programme for abolishing war. Far from achieving this end, their revolutionary success would more likely mean an even greater militarisation of society.

Marx and particularly Engels took a keen interest in military matters, but they did not seriously address the problem of eliminating war. Marxist theorists since then have continued to avoid this topic. Marxists focus on class relations in capitalist societies as the source of the world's major problems. But class dynamics are not the primary driving force behind many social problems, including sexism, racism and environmental degradation. Those following a strict class analysis are hard pressed to say something useful about such problems, much less formulate a strategy for eliminating them.

For example, by focussing on the role of the economic mode of production, there is a downgrading of the role of the state as a structure in its own right rather than as just a tool of the capitalist class or a site for class struggle. This downgrading is related to the failure of basic assumptions in the Marxist perspective for socialist revolution, such as the assumptions of the international character of the capitalist working class and of the withering away of the state after socialist revolution. Rather than exhibiting transnational solidarity, working class groups in particular countries have more often supported the policies of their own state, especially military policy. Rather than socialist revolution and the abolition of capitalist ownership being followed by the withering away of the state, the power of the state and especially of the military has become even greater.

Despite its limitations, class analysis does focus on key structures in society and fosters thinking in terms of roots rather than symptoms of social problems. By contrast, non-Marxist theorists and activists are more likely to focus on symptoms and to see possibilities for reforming existing structures. This leads to the following methods for influencing elites.

Convincing elites

National political, economic and military elites are nominally in control of the processes that lead to war, such as military spending, development of military technology, and foreign policy. Could these elites be converted by logical or moral arguments to push their governments to reduce military spending, expand the role of international law and settle disagreements by nonmilitary means? This is the hope of many who have worked inside and outside governments. To illustrate this I will use one example out of many, the arguments of William Epstein.

Epstein in his 1976 book The Last Chance gives a comprehensive account of the various treaties, conferences and other official steps towards nuclear disarmament. Given the actual course of the continuing nuclear arms race, such an account cannot provide much cause for optimism, and indeed Epstein is rather pessimistic. His only hope, the 'last chance' out of the predicament of the nuclear peril, lies with two priorities: improving and strengthening the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and creating a moral and political climate in the world which would eliminate the need for nuclear weapons.

For Epstein, the point of strengthening the NPT is to gain some time to cope with the problem of the spread of nuclear weapons to more and more states. The trouble with Epstein's approach here is that there is little hope that the NPT as a legal document will stop this proliferation of nuclear weapons. The NPT by itself cannot eliminate all the pressures promoting proliferation, such as the power and prestige enjoyed by state elites in countries acquiring nuclear weapons and the profits to be made in exporting nuclear power technology. Even if proliferation could be slowed or halted, the nuclear arms race between the major nuclear weapons states would remain as a basic problem.

This leads to Epstein's second priority, creating a world climate which would remove the desire by governments for nuclear weapons. This would take place, according to Epstein, on three fronts: arms control and disarmament, a more equitable distribution of the world's wealth and a strengthened world organisation. These are admirable goals, but Epstein does not outline how they will come about, except to imply that elites will pursue them because of the urgent necessity to avoid nuclear war. But the history of the nuclear arms race demonstrates the irrelevance of arguments based solely on welfare. Epstein's own account illustrates the virtual futility of achieving fundamental changes through negotiation.

Epstein says of disarmament, "The two superpowers [US and USSR] must, of course, lead the way." But what will make them do this? Epstein relies on the power of knowledge and logic to convince elites of the folly of their governments' policies. But this does not come to grips with the forces promoting the nuclear arms race, not to mention non-nuclear arms races.

The main public forum where national elites deal with the problem of war goes under the term 'negotiations.' The history of disarmament negotiations is a record of one failure after another. Why do these negotiations fail? Johan Galtung has given a whole list of answers, including the impossibility of attaining comprehensive military balance when the forces on either side are not identical in type and vulnerability, the catch-up mentality in military blocs and the power motive in national security bureaucracies. Furthermore, Galtung argues that disarmament negotiations actually perpetuate arms races by keeping the management of arms buildups under control of the strongest military powers, by providing opportunities for eavesdropping at the venue of the negotiations, and by providing an illusion of the possibility of disarmament which dampens public concern.

So much for leaving the problem to the elites! The fundamental difficulty with the approach of convincing elites is that the power, privilege and position of state elites are part of the very system which promotes war. These elites are continually pressured by the social context in which they work; this context shapes their perceptions and, more importantly, constrains their actions.

The elites are entirely well-intentioned. They are just as concerned as anyone about war and its prevention. It is just that, due to their position in society, they see the problems and solutions differently.

The difficulty lies not in the elites themselves but in the social structures in which they operate. For example, if a capitalist were convinced to produce goods for social use rather than profit, there is a good chance the company would fail. The good intentions would merely lead to personal catastrophe rather than a change in the system. The problems due to capitalism will not be overcome by convincing capitalists to behave differently. Rather, the focus must be on challenging and altering the patterns of social interaction on which capitalism is based, such as the position of the worker as hired labour power rather than as equal co-producer.

Similarly, government and military elites see mainly the dangers of disarmament such as instability, aggression and war. Furthermore, they are often relatively powerless, and feel powerless, to take steps which diverge radically from standard policies. Those who dissent on fundamental matters know they will lose their influence on the inside. For these reasons, the approach of influencing elites through logical argument is by itself quite insufficient for dealing with the problem of war.

Influencing elites via public pressure

A more promising approach is to use the force of 'public opinion' to influence elites. This approach recognises that it is political pressure rather than logical argument that influences the behaviour of elites.

To illustrate my argument here, I refer to some works by Richard Barnet, who has made some of the best analyses of the driving forces behind arms races. He gives a brilliant explanation of the massive spending on war preparations, of the operations of the military-industrial complex and of the psychology and bureaucratic dynamics of the national security managers. By comparison, his proposals on what to do about the situation are disappointing.

It is probably unfair to Barnet to expect from him a comprehensive and watertight strategy, since he has other aims in his writing. But because he goes further towards spelling out a strategy based on influencing elites via public pressure, an analysis of his prescriptions is illuminating. Most other analysts deal even less with strategy.

In his book The Roots of War Barnet lists three main roots for the case of the United States, and suggests how they might be eliminated. His first root is the military bureaucracy, which he says should be shrunk in size and reoriented towards healing rather than killing, controlled much more by the US Congress, and structurally changed to introduce the principle of personal responsibility for official acts. These are all worthy goals, but how are they to be achieved? Barnet gives no hint. He implies that the logic of the case along with knowledge will be the basis for change.

Barnet's second main root of war is the state capitalist economy and its dependence on profits and growth, especially from overseas investments. Barnet notes the need for a shift in government expenditure away from the military and from private goods towards health, education, transportation and the environment. He suggests that such changes might be possible under some modified form of private ownership or mixed economy. But he gives no idea of how this would come about.

Barnet's third main root of war is the ease with which the public is manipulated on national security issues. He sees a need to awaken and express "the deep but inarticulate aspirations for peace of the American people," which if achieved would lead to support for a political party with a foreign policy of peace. Once again, Barnet presents no plan for how this would come about. The implication is that with knowledge, the people would become aware of the necessity for change, which would provide support for the political victory of a party with an antiwar platform.

In an earlier book The Economy of Death, Barnet spells out in more detail what he sees as the role of various groups in the community in opposing war. Here are some of his suggestions.

The strategy behind these suggestions seems to be that widespread public concern and pressure will influence elites to take serious steps to dismantle the war system. Is this a sound strategy? There are two parts to it. First is the problem of creating antiwar public opinion, and second the problem of using this concern to influence elites.

The first problem is that of creating antiwar public opinion. In a way, the job of convincing people about the dangers of war is already complete. Most people agree that war is a horrible thing. But it is a big step to go from this to questioning the necessity of war and preparations for it.

By Barnet's own analysis, the changing of public opinion about arms races is a difficult task in the face of massive bureaucratic control over information and over creation of perceptions about public policy, in the face of a media captive to state and corporate interests and in the face of massive handouts to military contractors. For most of the time, the bulk of the populace accepts the military as necessary to prevent foreign domination, communism, anarchy or some other danger. Even those who are sympathetic to the aim of controlling the war bureaucracies usually feel powerless to bring about any change.

Assume that these obstacles are overcome and that public outcry over war preparations reaches deafening levels. This occasionally happens, as in the 1980s. What next? Does this influence policy-making elites?

There are several ways in which elites can act to dampen vocal public concern over war. One way is simply by doing nothing, by carrying on as usual. This is the standard procedure. Surges of public concern based on outrage are easily becalmed. Unless the solid core of committed people in a social movement is quite substantial, well motivated and ready for long term struggle, business-as-usual policies by governments will outlast the periodic waves of public concern.

Another way in which elites dampen social movements is by entering government-to-government negotiations. Negotiations give the appearance of government concern and action, and a focus on them can drain social concern. Prior to the 1982 United Nations Second Special Session on Disarmament, many antiwar groups around the world put enormous effort into focussing attention and citizen concern on the conference, which turned out to be a dismal failure.

In terms of demobilising public concern, even more effective than negotiating failures are minor negotiating successes. The treaty in 1963 which banned tests of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere was a major contributing factor to the decline of public concern over nuclear war which had been heightened since the late 1950s by antiwar activists. The treaty had little impact on the ongoing nuclear arms race, since the nuclear weapons establishments had made ample preparations to continue and indeed expand nuclear testing programmes underground.

Similarly, the 1987 treaty to ban land-based intermediate-range nuclear forces from Europe was both a response to peace movement pressure and a factor in reducing popular concern about nuclear war. Meanwhile, nuclear and conventional weapons continue to be modernised, and land-based missiles removed from European countries are being replaced by sea-based missiles.

The election of a reform government is yet another potential dead end for antiwar efforts built around mobilising public opinion. Ralph Miliband in his book The State in Capitalist Society argues that reform governments elected in Europe since World War Two almost invariably have served to dampen and contain the radical social and political demands of the people who elected them. If this applies to such issues as redistributing social wealth and increasing the power of workers vis-a-vis employers, it is even more true on military issues. In many countries the major political parties have virtually indistinguishable policies on military issues.

Sometimes a party, typically a socialist or social democratic party, adopts some antiwar policies when not in government, usually as a result of pressure from a strong antiwar movement with strong influence in the party. But once in government, any such policies which call into question the role of the military are unlikely to be taken seriously.

Quite a number of political parties around the world have been elected to office with policies questioning the presence of US military bases, including Australia (1972), Greece (1981), Spain (1982) and the Philippines (1986). Time after time, these policies have been ignored or 're-evaluated.' The bases have stayed. Even less likely than removal of foreign military bases is the prospect of a reform government both promising and implementing significant cuts in its own military forces.

A focus on helping elect a reform government can be very disempowering for social movements. Effort is put into influencing electoral and parliamentary processes. As a result, activists and supporters come to look to political party elites for bringing about change, rather than looking to themselves to build the skills, understanding and alternatives of the social movement.

Nigel Young in his penetrating book An Infantile Disorder? argues that the strategy of the leadership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in Britain in the late 1950s and early 1960s, namely to influence the policies of the British Labour Party, was one reason why the antiwar movement of that generation failed to achieve any lasting change. Not only did the Labour Party resist adopting or implementing any policy challenging the military status quo, but the effect on CND was to emphasise political compromise and de-emphasise moral concerns and radical initiatives at the grassroots.

A fourth way in which elites dampen social movements is through engaging in military confrontations and wars. Prior to World War One, widespread public opposition to war was voiced, for example through petitions and huge demonstrations. This activity was aimed at influencing elites through expression of public concern and raising the possibility of mass resistance in the event of war. But after the war broke out, populations quickly lined up behind their respective governments. The antiwar movement was almost completely destroyed.

In summary, the strategy of mobilising public pressure to influence elites to take action against war is limited in several fundamental respects. First, it is difficult to develop and maintain a high degree of popular concern in the face of the manipulation of public opinion by state bureaucracies and the media. Second, in the face of public pressure, elites can defuse the situation by doing nothing, by entering negotiations, by making mild reforms or by engaging in military confrontations. Finally, a focus on influencing elites channels social activism into appeals to the elites or into electoral activities, thereby diverting efforts from alternative strategies based on strengthening grassroots initiative and laying the basis for structural change. The approach of influencing elites via public pressure is therefore inadequate for eliminating the problem of war.

Symbolic nonviolent action

A yet more promising approach to the problem of war is to use nonviolent action to mobilise people against war. This approach goes beyond reliance on public opinion, which is easily manipulated. Nonviolent action not only testifies to others about deep concern, but also provides meaningful and motivating experiences for those involved.

Nonviolent action has a long history. For example, the book The Power of the People is an inspiring account of nonviolent action in United States history, including campaigns against slavery, for women's suffrage and against exploitation of farm workers. Not least among nonviolent campaigns have been those focussed against war, such as anti-conscription campaigns. Although The Power of the People does not explicitly pronounce on strategies for facing the problem of war, it presents a clear picture of the advantages of nonviolent action. Nonviolent campaigns expressing opposition to war have included: meetings, talks and other educational efforts, demonstrations and protests, antiwar marches of up to continent length incorporating educational activities, resistance to military conscription, hunger strikes, entering nuclear test zones and blocking nuclear vessels, and drenching military files with blood.

I think these campaigns are highly important. But apparently they have been ineffective in fundamentally altering the forces which promote war. Reading The Power of the People and other similar accounts has been a troubling as well as an inspiring experience for me. While feeling encouraged by and proud of the deep concern shown by many social activists over the years, I have also been aware that these efforts had been far too few and weak to restrain arms races and prevent wars.

A sizeable portion of symbolic nonviolent action is aimed directly at elites, in an attempt to prick the consciences of individual elites. This use of nonviolent action suffers the same defect as other methods of influencing elites: the structures of the war system are not addressed, but instead reaffirmed through a focus on the decision-making role of those at the top.

More important is the role of demonstrations, vigils and acts of civil disobedience in bringing the issues to the attention of the public. The actions show that a deep moral concern is felt by at least some people, and that public opposition is an available option. But these techniques do not, or at least have not yet, become part of the lives of the bulk of the populace. The act of protesting is something that may happen today, but if not organisationally anchored it may well be gone tomorrow. Furthermore, protest and civil disobedience may not in themselves overcome the powerlessness felt by many individuals nor allay the fears of foreign attack felt by many others.

Another problem with many nonviolent action campaigns is that there is no clear underlying conception of how disarmament will be achieved through convincing the public of the necessity to act against war. Will the public swamp the government with letters opposing war and elect antiwar candidates? Or will workers in arms factories and soldiers go on strike for peace? To bring about the end of war, it will be necessary to dismantle military and military-related establishments and to create stable new social and political structures. Without some fairly clear picture of how this can take place, it is unlikely that nonviolent antiwar actions can achieve anything like their full potential.

Much nonviolent action helps mobilise public opinion, which then can influence elites to take action against war. To the extent that this is the main effect of nonviolent action, as a strategy it suffers from limitations similar to those of other ways of applying pressure to elites.

Bob Overy has written a thought-provoking essay entitled How Effective are Peace Movements? He makes the point that many activities undertaken by peace movements, including writing letters, holding public meetings and demonstrations, and undertaking civil disobedience, may serve more to help the participants express their personal values and show that they are taking a stand than the activities do to effectively deal with the problem of war. Peace movements can become moral crusades testifying to good intentions but achieving little beyond that. As John Zube wrote in a letter to me, the expression of mere wishes will not suffice. It is like fire fighters who, lacking water, pumps and hoses, organise themselves to chant "H2O! H2O!"

It is a strength of nonviolent action that participants can publicly testify to and internally strengthen their personal commitment against war. In addition, participants can gain a clearer picture of the driving forces behind war, for example in being exposed to the repressive force of the state. But it is a potential weakness of nonviolent action that participants may gloss over questions of effectiveness in the course of undertaking a personally satisfying stand against war.


What methods used to oppose war have any chance of removing the roots of war? Military defence and revolutionary capture of state power are not solutions, since they strengthen rather than weaken the basis for war. An approach based on directly persuading elites is pretty hopeless, because most elites are part of the very structures which promote war: military and national security bureaucracies and economic interests with vested interests in military spending and growth in state power.

An approach based on influencing elites by public pressure is more promising because it addresses members of the public, who are less tied than elites to the war system. But this approach still does not provide a basis for mobilising the public except through persuasion based on knowledge and logic, and also depends ultimately on the implausible task of changing social structures by influencing elites.

Finally, an approach based on involving people in direct action is more promising still because it is based on methods which do not depend on influencing elites. But this approach lacks a way of involving a large fraction of the population in their day-to-day lives in activities which challenge the roots of war. Also, symbolic nonviolent action is seldom developed as part of a long-term strategy for social and political transformation, except via the approach of mobilising public opinion to influence elites.

What is needed is a strategy based on campaigns or activities which can involve people in their daily lives, which encourages learning and provides positive stimulation in terms of doing something and at the same time challenges in a fundamental way the underpinnings of war.