John Dewey on War and Our Individual Role in Peace
“The present task of the constructive pacifist is to call attention away from the catchwords which so easily in wartime become the substitute for both facts and ideas back to realities.”
By Maria Popova
Philosopher, psychologist, and education reformer John Dewey (October 20, 1859–June 1, 1952) is one of the most influential minds of the twentieth century. His enduring insight on the true purpose of education and the art of reflection and fruitful curiosity resonates today with growing relevance amid our struggle to cultivate wisdom in the age of information. But nowhere was Dewey more prescient than in his reflections on conflict, war, and what is required of us if we are to live up to our hopes for a peaceful world — reflections urgently relevant today, as we face a swelling tide of violence along the vast spectrum from bullying to beheadings.
On July 28, 1917 — exactly 67 years before I was born, and exactly three years after the start of World War I — The New Republic published a poignant piece by Dewey titled “The Future of Pacifism.” The essay is now included in Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America (public library) — that fantastic “intellectual biography” of contemporary thought marking the 100th anniversary of The New Republic, which also gave us George Orwell on the four questions a great writer must ask herself. Dewey’s perceptive insight may well have been written about modern attitudes toward war — particularly America’s — and his impassioned case for peace reminds us that conflict is not merely something inflicted between governments but something in which we all, as individuals, are implicit in the small, seemingly imperceptible choices we make daily, the macro-beliefs we subscribe to in our private lives and the micro-actions we take in public.
There is no paradox in the fact that the American people is profoundly pacifist and yet highly impatient of the present activities of many professed or professional pacifists.
He considers “the failure of the pacifist propaganda to determine finally the course of a nation which was converted to pacifism in advance”:
It takes two to make peace as well as to make war; or, as the present situation abundantly testifies, a much larger number than two.
Lamenting the misguided belief that that pacifism is merely a form of “futile gesturing,” Dewey admonishes against the prevalent perception that those who don’t support the war must be pro-enemy at heart. (Nearly a century later, a certain American president would repeatedly suggest that not supporting the war in Iraq — a war his administration started — was not only pro-enemy but also anti-American.) Dewey points to the pioneering American social worker, peace activist, and suffragist Jane Addams as the finest example of doing the pacifist position justice:
She earnestly protests against the idea that the pacifist position was negative or laissez-faire. She holds that the popular impression that pacifism meant abstinence and just keeping out of trouble is wrong; that it stood for a positive international polity in which this country should be the leader of the nations of the world “into a wider life of coordinated activity”; she insists that the growth of nations under modern conditions involves of necessity international complications which admit “of adequate treatment only through an international agency not yet created.” In short, the pacifists “urge upon the United States not indifference to moral issues and to the fate of liberty and democracy, but a strenuous endeavor to lead all nations of the earth into an organized international life.”
That intelligent pacifism stands for this end, and that the more intelligent among the pacifists, like Miss Addams, saw the situation in this fashion needs not be doubted.
And yet Dewey, never one to oversimplify the complexity of things, is far from advocating for “the very elementary attitude that if no nation ever allowed itself to be drawn into war, no matter how great the provocation, wars would cease to be.” Such preventative methods, he argues, are a matter of “treating symptoms and ignoring the disease.” He writes:
All this seems to concern the past of pacifism rather than its future. But it indicates, by elimination, what that future must be if it is to be a prosperous one. It lies in furthering whatever will bring into existence those new agencies of international control whose absence has made the efforts of pacifists idle gestures in the air… To go on protesting against war in general and this war in particular, to direct effort to stopping the war rather than to determining the terms upon which it shall be stopped, is to repeat the earlier tactics after their ineffectualness has been revealed. Failure to recognize the immense impetus to reorganization afforded by this war; failure to recognize the closeness and extent of true international combinations which it necessitates, is a stupidity equaled only by the militarist’s conception of war as a noble blessing in disguise.
To put an end to war and violence, Dewey argues, is not a matter of passive and theoretical protest. (One can only imagine what he would have made of today’s epidemic of online petitions.) It is a matter of acting, here and now:
I have little patience with those who are so anxious to save their influence for some important crisis that they never risk its use in any present emergency.
More than that, our individual responsibility is to use whatever “influence” we have — whatever reach, whatever voice, whatever share of the cultural conversation — in dispelling the propaganda of war:
The present task of the constructive pacifist is to call attention away from the catchwords which so easily in wartime become the substitute for both facts and ideas back to realities.
This task of wedging a stick in the myth-making machinery of war propaganda is undoubtedly of greater — graver, even — importance today. But while the machinery of the media may have become manyfold more industrious since Dewey’s day and a merciless economic driver of commercial culture, it also pays to remember that in many ways, we — you and I and all the unique private individuals of whom the faceless public of citizenry is composed — are the media today. As Sally Kohn elegantly put it, “clicking is a public act” — what is being written determines what we read and what we come to believe, but today more than ever, what we read also very much determines what is being written. We are no longer the passive consumers of those catchwords of which Dewey admonishes but also their propagators, their perpetrators. Seen in this light, Dewey’s closing remarks ring with extraordinary poignancy:
One might, I think, go over, one by one, the phrases which are now urged to the front as defining the objects of war at the terms of peace and show that the interests of pacifism are bound up with securing the organs by which economic energies shall be articulated. We have an inherited political system which sits like a straitjacket on them since they came into being after the political system took on shape. These forces cannot be suppressed. They are the moving, the controlling, forces of the modern world. The question of peace or war is whether they are to continue to work furtively, blindly, and by those tricks of manipulation which have constituted the game of international diplomacy, or whether they are to be frankly recognized and the political system accommodated to them… Too many influential personages are pure romanticists. They are expressing ideals which no longer have anything to do with the facts. This stereotyped political romanticism gives the pacifists their chance for revenge. Their idealism has but to undergo a course in the severe realism of those economic forces which are actually shaping the associations and organizations of men, and the future is with them.
Complement with Einstein and Freud’s little-known correspondence on war, peace, and human nature, Tolstoy and Gandhi’s letters on violence and the truth of the human spirit, Mark Twain’s The War Prayer animated, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams on how our choices shape our world.
The whole of Insurrections of the Mind is a trove of timeless, timely thought, featuring contributions from such celebrated minds as Zadie Smith, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, and Andrew Sullivan.
Published October 20, 2014