A Taxonomy for Pacifism

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A couple of days ago we talked about the need to reclaim the word "pacifism" and return it to general use. We believe the time is ripe right now — if Bernie Sanders can bring "socialism" back from the dead we're sure pacifism can't be far behind.

Pacifism is not a simple word but rather indicates a vast family of meanings and possible connotations. The image above is a first attempt at capturing the complexity of pacifist practice and philosophy in a single diagram. Please join us in stepping through the various branches of this tree, and please click through to the corresponding Wikipedia pages if you'd like to further investigate each of these terms. We'll also discuss many more related words and terms that didn't make the cut for our initial illustration, but might be included in a larger version in the future.

We'd also like your feedback, critique and further suggestions so we can make the next version of this tree more accurate and complete. Just like our world, this diagram is a work in progress! Let's begin with the trunk.

Pacifism: "Pacifism is opposition to war, militarism or violence."

Utopianism: At its deepest level, pacifism is an expression of the notion that a better world is possible. Schemes to build an ideal society are often generally referred to as utopian, following St. Thomas More's Utopia. This notion also has other literary antecedents offering a variety of tangentially related terms such as Platonism (following Plato's Republic) and Panglossianism (following Voltaire's Candide).

The taxonomy of pacifism appears to split into two main branches. We'll look first at Practical Pacifism, which indicates an approach to problem-solving that is realistic and results-oriented. Forms of practical pacifism include:

Isolationism is the controversial practice of avoiding foreign entanglements and simply "minding one's own". While isolationists may or may not give any thought to pacifist philosophy, they tend to implicitly support pacifist positions by eschewing the types of foreign adventurism or opportunism that often lead to war.

Peacebuilding is a form of practical pacifism that takes the opposite tack of isolationism. Peacebuilding individuals and organizations venture bravely into the most troubled areas of the world and try to improve situations through direct interaction with civilians and institutions. A related term is Grassroots pacifism.

It's worth noting that, while "pacifism" appears to remain poorly understood around the world today, there are countless organizations out there on the field today doing incredibly heartening and encouraging work at the grassroots level. In 2015, peacebuilding is one of the most fruitful and fast-growing areas of pacifist activity in the world.

Fiscal conservativism is not directly pacifist at all, but the doctrine that government should spend and tax as little as possible often coexists (peacefully) with the pacifist goal of reducing military spending. Fiscal conservatives may also cross over into pacifism when they look skeptically at the often fraudulent excuses offered for military expenditures, such as when US President and fiscal conservative Dwight David Eisenhower warned against the growing influence of military-industrial lobbyists in Washington DC. (Related: Pro-trade pacifism, another conservative-friendly approach that emphasizes the damage war does to international commerce, and the potential for lost profits in time of war.)

Anti-militarism is a practical political doctrine distilled to a single point: governments will govern best by avoiding military action, military spending and (most crucially) participation of military leadership at the seat of power. While "anti-militarism" is not often discussed as a specific doctrine, so many nations around the world today suffer under cruel and arbitrary military dictatorships that anti-militarist sentiments are widely and generally understood as a call for freedom, democracy and justice, especially in those regions where military power is most paramount in domestic government.

Libertarianism is the controversial but popular movement that objects to the increasing encroachment of government into private life, and refuses to exchange personal freedom for geopolitical or communal unity. Because military activity tends to offer governments a great excuse to encroach into private lives (either by drafting citizens as soldiers, demanding tax increases to pay for wars or spying on citizens to protect the peace), libertarians tend to be very sympathetic to pacifist ideas. In recent USA presidential nominating contests, both Ron Paul and Rand Paul have sometimes associated themselves with pacifist or isolationist positions. Whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning have been embraced as heroes by both libertarians and pacifists.

Anarcho-pacifism is a loosely-defined but essential syncretism between anarchism and pacifism. Anarcho-pacifists may emphasize either the potential for a peaceful future world without government, or (more commonly) the importance of adopting anarchic and non-hierarchical structures within pacifist movements before achieving world peace. This form of pacifist expression tends to emerge from the writings of creative or experimental pacifists such as Leo Tolstoy, Bertrand Russell, Dorothy Day, Jean-Paul Sartre, Abbie Hoffman, John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Allen Ginsberg, and probably best describes the attitude of generational peace movements in the Vietnam War/Woodstock era as well as that of modern protest groups such as Occupy Wall Street.

As we move from practical pacifism to the more idealistic forms, some of the most important and historically resonant entries in the pacifist vocabulary emerge, with strong support from both branches.

The phrases civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance may bring happy tears to the eyes of many pacifists, because they are historically connected with our greatest and most heroic successes: Mahatma Gandhi's various protest movements in South Africa and India (against British imperialism, against the Hindu caste system, against the genocidal outbreaks of the 1947 India/Pakistan partition) and Martin Luther King's struggle for African-American civil rights in the United States. Both Gandhi and King have acknowledged the importance of Henry David Thoreau's essay Resistance to Civil Government (in which he describes the night he spent in jail in 1846 after refusing to pay a state tax that would support the US/Mexican War and the American institution of slavery) in crystallizing the modern approach to nonviolent protest.

In contrast to the common misunderstanding that pacifists are passive, it is often helpful for pacifists to emphasize that both civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance are aggressive forms of activism that require great courage and determination.

Various permutations of the related terms can be found in popular use, including Nonviolence and civil resistance. Each term can be understood to have a singular specific meaning, and the two Wikipedia pages linked above help to explain how "civil disobedience" and "nonviolent resistance" are often differentiated. Both terms are also popularly indicated by action words such as "sit-in", "boycott", "protest" and "march".

The second of our pacifist tree's two main branches, Satyagraha is the great term invented by Mahatma Gandhi (with the help of a few associates, as he describes in his autobiography) to represent the underlying personal, psychological and spiritual belief system from which a program of successful political activism may emerge. Wikipedia says:

The term originated in a competition in the news-sheet "Indian Opinion" in South Africa in 1906. It was an adaptation by Gandhi of one of the entries in that competition. "Satyagraha" is a Tatpuruṣa compound of the Sanskrit words satya (meaning "truth") and Agraha ("polite insistence", or "holding firmly to"). The word was formed as a combination of loosely translated as "insistence on truth" (satya "truth"; agraha "insistence" or "holding firmly to") or holding onto truth or truth force.

While "Satyagraha" is obviously associated with Gandhi, it can be used as a general term for any peace movement that is both action-oriented and highly philosophical or idealist in nature. While it helps to differentiate "satyagraha" from "practical pacifism" (and to posit them as the two main branches of pacifism as suggested in the diagram above), it's important to realize that even these two branches tend to be highly harmonious with each other, and often entwine and coincide.

One World or "world government" ideologies argue for the feasibility of a united world government that would prevent war and international violence, injustice and oppression. This highly controversial idea currently manifests itself within the United Nations, though the UN is widely seen as a weak or compromised institution, and many one-worlders look past the United Nations in their hopes for a truly effective world government.

As branches cross within the pacifist tree, it's worth pointing out that one-world pacifism and anarcho-pacifism seem to directly contradict each other. One hopes for a strong world government and the other for an absence of government. However, both seek to end the plague of militarism and war.

Ahimsa is an ancient religious term that is often translated directly as "nonviolence" or "harmlessness". Ahimsa notably includes not only human beings but also animals, plants, insects, microscopic organisms and the planet earth itself in the circle of beings that must be always treated with consideration and care. According to Wikipedia:

Ahimsa is one of the cardinal virtues and an important tenet of 3 major religions (Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism). Ahimsa is a multidimensional concept, inspired by the premise that all living beings have the spark of the divine spiritual energy; therefore, to hurt another being is to hurt oneself. Ahimsa has also been related to the notion that any violence has karmic consequences. While ancient scholars of Hinduism pioneered and over time perfected the principles of Ahimsa, the concept reached an extraordinary status in the ethical philosophy of Jainism. Most popularly, Mahatma Gandhi strongly believed in the principle of ahimsa.

"Ahimsa" is sometimes offered as an alternative term for "nonviolence" or for "pacifism" itself, though a broad look at the pacifist taxonomy suggests that it belongs on the moral or idealistic side of the tree, and cannot encompass some merely practical applications of pacifism that ignore moral questions altogether. The notion of ahimsa also coincides for obvious reasons with vegetarianism.

When I asked for alternatives to the word "pacifism" in my last article, one Litkicks reader suggested the Taoist term Wu Wei, which is explained by Wikipedia as follows:

Wu wei is an important concept in Taoism that literally means non-action or non-doing. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu explains that beings (or phenomena) that are wholly in harmony with the Tao behave in a completely natural, uncontrived way. The goal of spiritual practice for the human being is, according to Lao Tzu, the attainment of this purely natural way of behaving, as when the planets revolve around the sun. The planets effortlessly do this revolving without any sort of control, force, or attempt to revolve themselves, instead engaging in effortless and spontaneous movement.

Because we are emphasizing here that pacifism is an action-oriented and even often an aggressive and confrontational philosophy, we cannot agree that "wu wei" stands as a good alternative for the word "pacifism" itself. However, the deep correspondence between the beautiful and peace-minded Taoist religion and pacifist philosophy does deserve recognition, and "wu wei" does seem to merit a place within the pacifist tree.

This brings us to the larger sub-branch of Satyagraha that can be labelled Religious Pacifism, and while we only list the two leaf nodes Buddhism and Christianity here (because the pacifist connotations of both Jesus's and Buddha's powerful teachings are so explicit and clear), it's worth noting that every religion appears to contain major pacifist branches or sects, including Islam (Ahmadiyya), Judaism (Neturei Karta) and Baha'i, and also that there are numerous specifically pacifist movements within the larger religions (such as the Christian Quakers). Even more importantly, it must be pointed out that every religion can be seen as an approach to personal and global peace, and thus that every religion in the world has a pacifist connotation. (Which is not to say, of course, that atheists cannot also be great pacifists. They can be and often are.)

This completes our first draft of a pacifist taxonomy. We'll be happy to update and expand this based on your suggestions. Please send corrections, additions and thoughts.

This taxonomy will appear as a key feature on the website of the new organization called Pacifism21 we are working hard to launch, and we're trying to raise $10,000 to give this website a proper debut. We're halfway to our fundraising goal and would really appreciate your financial support via our Indiegogo campaign. The Pacifism21 website will launch in the next few days!

5 Responses to "A Taxonomy for Pacifism"

by Mileage on

So happy to see this wonderfully noble effort.! Looking forward to its ongoing development, with hopes to contribute...I've always carried the aphorism (?) "Dont just do something, stand there !" in high esteem since first hearing it at a pot party 50 years ago. The Golden Rule must also be applied at every opportunity. Thank you !

by Bill_Ectric on

I'm on board! I'm glad you included Christianity in the taxonomy. Christianity has been given a bad name by the many people who do bad things in its name. I am a liberal, leftist Christian, far from the religious right people who always make us look like intolerant idiots. You know how people sometimes say a punk band "sold out" once they signed to a major label? I think Christianity got "sold out" once Constantine made it an official state religion. Our founding fathers knew this was a bogus idea and tried to insure it wouldn't happen here. Just because I believe in it doesn't mean you have to. But I digress. Jesus said the greatest commandment is love. Not "make sure you have plenty of oil."

by Levi Asher on

Well said, Bill.

I'm not a "Christian" but I sure do admire what he stood for, and the words in the Gospels.

by TKG on

Hi Levi,

I know you are busy so I will make it quick. I was looking for words for you.

Here it is.

Irenic, or irenicism.

Irenic means aiming or aimed at peace.

from Greek eirēnikos, from the Greek word ειρήνη eirēnē which means ‘peace.’

Here is a bit from a Baltimore Sun feature on words:


Irene, the daughter of Zeus and Themis, was the goddes of peace. (Themis was the goddess of justice, the woman with the scales, so the peace-and-justice link long antedates contemporary liberals.) From Irene we get not only a female name, but also an adjective, irenic, pronounced eye-REN-ik or eye-REEN-ik, for aiming or aimed at peace, promoting peace, peaceful or pacific. The Greek root words are eirenikos and eirene.


Irenic means aiming or aimed at peace and does not have connotations that pacifism has inherent in both its etymology and common understanding.

Irenics is contrasted to polemics, which comes from πόλεμος (polemos) meaning war.

Pacifism implies a modus operandi (e.g. non-violence) whereas irenicism relates only to working for peace, via reason and understanding, without any necessarily predetermined or proscribed means or method.

by Levi Asher on

Wow, that's a good word, TKG. Thanks!

Not sure exactly where this should fit into the taxonomy, but we can figure that out for the next version. It does have a nice ring to it.

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