Pacifism, Promotion of Peace and Political Dilemmas

  February 21, 2021   Read time 2 min
Pacifism, Promotion of Peace and Political Dilemmas
Throughout the nineteenth century peace reformers differed on two fundamental issues: whether to oppose war absolutely or conditionally; and whether to link peace with other social justice issues. The first discussion centered on what was called “defensive war.”

The founders and members of the first European and American peace societies were middle-class liberals, persons of wealth and influence who sought through public education to put an end to war. They were generally not interested in creating mass membership organizations, and with the exception of the Massachusetts Peace Society and a few other groups, did not welcome women as members. Peace society members in the USA were mostly “well educated members of the urban northeastern middle class,” according to De Benedetti, predominantly merchants, educators, and clergy. They were personally conservative, mostly Congregationalist and Unitarian, with the active participation of Quakers. They were humanitarians and reformers who combined Christian millennialism with faith in human progress. In Europe as well peace advocates tended to be reformminded members of the aristocracy and representatives or advocates of the rising bourgeoisie. The early peace societies sought to avoid the controversial political issues of the day. The London Peace Society described peace as solely a humanitarian and religious concern, declaring in 1819, “with party politics, the friends of peace have nothing to do. The cause is a religious, not a political one.” Fearful of the revolutionary violence and social upheaval that had recently convulsed Europe, many peace advocates sought to preserve an emerging social and economic order from which they hoped to benefit. An official report of the APS proclaimed, “we aim at conservative reform.” In France peace leader Frédéric Passy echoed this plea for moderation. “We do not wish to . . . overthrow anything,” he wrote in 1868. Passy and Bertha von Suttner urged their contemporaries to eschew political controversies and to concentrate instead on building long-term support for peace. This conservative approach continued into the years before World War I. It helps to explain the peace passion of industrial barons like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford, who recognized that war is bad for business (except weapons makers) and that peace facilitates the preservation and accumulation of wealth. The conservative impulse helped to attract financial support and political acceptance among elites, but it clashed with the reformist zeal of many religiously motivated activists. It also impeded efforts to connect the cause of peace with broader social justice issues.

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