Current Seminar: 2017-2018
2017-2018 Pembroke Research Seminar
"The Cultures of Pacifism"
Seminar Leader Leela Gandhi, John Hawkes Professor of the Humanities and English
The terrible wars in the first half of the twentieth century (peopled by masses of unacknowledged soldiers from garrison states around the colonial world) provoked complex transnational pacifist subcultures. Unexpected interlocutors came together to protest war and militarism and develop a planetary philosophy of non-violence drawn from diverse traditions. This seminar aims to recover the transnational history of twentieth-century pacifism and to clarify its philosophical and ethical content.
Between 1923 and 1937 the exiled French intellectual and radical Romain Rolland began an intense correspondence with Sigmund Freud on fascism and violence, building on Rolland’s oeuvre and on themes sounded in Freud’s occasional essays—such as, “Thoughts for the time on War and Death” and “Why War”, written at Einstein’s behest. Across the Atlantic the self-exiled British homosexual writers W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood forged connections with sympathetic comrades in the disparate locations of Hollywood and Haverford, bringing figures from show business (Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo) into close collaboration with Jewish refugees from Europe, Indian spiritual philosophers, and Quaker activists.
The pacifists of the early twentieth-century opposed war categorically but their umbrella project included opposition to multiple causes. Bodies as diverse as the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the religious-minded Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), and the socialist-atheist War Resisters League (WRL) combined forces in committees on Africa, Leagues for the Freedom of India, and fostered programs against US intervention in Asia and in Central and South America. They wrote petitions seeking independence for the Philippines and organized protests for the revocation of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Most pacifists of this era participated in the proto-civil rights movement in America through the founding in 1942 of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). Many insisted on the connection between peace and economic justice through the historic Conference for Progressive Labor Action.
Informing this agenda was the belief, best articulated by the pacifist-socialist- civil rights activist A. J. Muste, that war conceals the “integral connectionbetween “economic exploitation, fascism, racism, Jim Crowism.” Conscientious objectors during the Second World War, especially, devoted their energies to the reform of prisons, archaic mental hospitals and to journeys of reconciliation undertaken by black and white pacifists in the segregated south.
There was another unexpected prompt to the inclusivity of this culture. In 1940 President Roosevelt authorized the Selective Training and Service Act that significantly widened the denominational scope of religious objection beyond traditional provisions for Christian groups like the Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren. The result was a platform for unprecedented religious ecumenism. Many pacifists wrote with particular interest about Gandhi and his methods, and founded ashrams for the practice of non-violent living and action in Harlem, Newark, Trabuco—and one on Ivar Street in Hollywood. At core was a revolutionary new global ethics of pacifism committed to the spiritual ideals of neutrality, disarmament and democracy.
In a tripartite analysis (although in no particular chronological order) we will, first, examine key texts, manifestoes, manuals, memoirs, diaries, letters and other documents from the era described above. Second, our inquiry will include a meditation on and quest for the historically intersecting and imagined “source” philosophies of non-violence continually invoked by twentieth-century pacifists: late-Vedic, Buddhist, Jain and Cynic, among others. We will consider select readings from these traditions. Third, we will review key moments of hospitality to (or conditions of possibility for) ideals of non-violence/pacifism in post-war and late-twentieth-century critical theory. Readings in this category will cover the topics of the ethical turn (Buber, Levinas, Butler), negativity (Adorno), immortality (the ontological turn in anthropology, speculative realism and new materialism). The seminar will include some workshops with significant scholars, activists, artists and writers in the field.