Pacifism Today: A Dialogue about Alternatives to War in Ukraine

NONVIOLENCE, 18 Mar 2024

Majken Jul Sørensen | The Transnational - TRANSCEND Media Service

11 Mar 2024 To all the brave people who refuse to participate in war, in Ukraine, Russia and everywhere else.

“War is a crime against humanity. I am therefore determined not to support any kind of war, and to strive for the removal of all causes of war.”
— The pacifist declaration of War Resisters’ International.

Back cover text

“How can you be a pacifist in times like these?” THE SCEPTIC asks, the Russian invasion of Ukraine fresh in mind. Majken Jul Sørensen’s first response is to counter with the opposite question: “How can you not be a pacifist in times like these? With all that we know about the consequences of modern warfare, why are all the alternatives to war not on the table?”

In “Pacifism Today”, Majken illustrates with numerous examples her understanding of pacifism and her commitment to nonviolent action and unarmed resistance to war. In this personal reflection on why she became a pacifist, she explains how her dedication to pacifism has grown deeper with increasing knowledge about people’s ability to engage in conflict by nonviolent means.

Challenged by THE SCEPTIC, Majken outlines how people can refuse all social and economic cooperation with an occupying force, for instance by boycotting schools and rigged elections. In her responses to THE SCEPTICS’ doubt, Majken uncovers the unique dynamic of nonviolent struggle. She points out how militarism in the long run is doing more harm than good, and explores under what circumstances the Russian people might be able to bring Putin down from power.

You may also read this booklet as a downloadable PDF.
Or buy it from Irene Publishing/Lulu (71 pages, € 9.82)
More about Irene Publishing here.


Majken Jul Sørensen

In my academic life as a social scientist, I have been researching and writing about nonviolent resistance and the dynamics of conflict. However, I am also a pacifist, refusing to participate in or prepare for any kind of war. I started writing this dialogue a year after the 2022 full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine as a debate with myself about whether I could really continue to be a pacifist. When the answer turned into a profound yes, I decided to publish the dialogue and make it a bit more dramatic to answer some of the questions which are standard in conversations about pacifism and alternatives to war.

THE SCEPTIC who asks the questions in this essay is not a real person, but a “stand in” representing everyone who has questioned my pacifist position, either in person or in writing.

All views expressed here are my own. I do not claim to represent all pacifists, and not all the scholars whose research I refer to are pacifists. My hope is that those of you who have a gut feeling that war is wrong and believe there must be other solutions might find the arguments you have been looking for in this dialogue.

A text is always a collaborative process, even if I am the sole author of this publication. Thus, I am deeply grateful to everyone who has discussed pacifism and nonviolence with me over the years, helping me sharpen my arguments. This particular booklet would not have come into existence without my childhood friend Malene Raben Jørgensen. She convinced me to write down my arguments and share them with others. Craig S. Brown, Henrik Frykberg, Jørgen Johansen, Dorte Lykke Holm, Brian Martin, Yurii Sheliazhenko, Shahira Tarrash and Jan Øberg read various drafts of the text and all gave valuable comments on what to focus on or develop further. Tom Vilmer Paamand was one of the first pacifists I met when I was a teenager, helping me navigate this new world of peace activism. Tom has commented extensively on the whole text of this dialogue and especially helped me bring THE SCEPTIC to life. Thanks to all of you, this became a much better booklet. Any remaining shortcomings in the text, despite your efforts, are, of course, my responsibility.

Majken Jul Sørensen
February 16th, 2024.

THE SCEPTIC: You call yourself a pacifist. As far as I understand the term, it means that you are against all wars and preparations for war, including the current defensive war Ukraine is waging against the Russian attack. How can you be a pacifist in times like these?

Majken: I ask myself the opposite question. How can you not be a pacifist in times like these? With all that we know about the consequences of modern warfare, why are all the alternatives to war not on the table?

The answer to why I am a pacifist can be divided into three parts. First of all, I think it is wrong to kill other people, and in war people die, soldiers as well as civilians. Second, the price people pay for fighting a war is simply too high. Infrastructure gets destroyed, and in times of war, it is more difficult to uphold the values one strives to protect, such as respect for human rights. If war was the answer, we would have had world peace by now, taking into consideration all the wars that have been fought during the past centuries with the stated intention to create peace. However, most important is the third part of my answer: today, we know a great deal about fighting with nonviolent means, and it is irrational to ignore this knowledge. We can come back to what ignited my personal interest in nonviolence and pacifism later, but I think we should start by talking about some of the alternatives I know about.

THE SCEPTIC: I absolutely agree that war is terrible and we should do everything to avoid it, but when I look at what happened in Ukraine in 2022, I don’t see any other option than armed defence to fight the Russian invasion. How can there be any alternatives?

Majken: The Russian invasion was a horrible act of aggression. Of course, I understand that the Ukrainians want to fight this invasion, but there are other ways to fight than with weapons. In the long run, unarmed methods are more likely to be effective in defending human rights and democracy and saving human lives. Unarmed struggle is also likely to make it easier to have peaceful relations in the future. For every day the war continues, every bullet fired, rocket launched, house destroyed and human life lost, the reconstruction and reconciliation will take longer. This is why I am a pacifist and see war as a crime against humanity.

THE SCEPTIC: When you say unarmed struggle, what do you have in mind? I think the time for peaceful demonstrations is over.

Majken: If you mean large gatherings of people, I agree that now is not the time for demonstrations, at least not in the parts of Ukraine that are occupied. Demonstrating in large crowds under such circumstances often creates unnecessary risk, with little chance of gaining much. This said, there are exceptions. In the early days of the Russian invasion, the citizens of the small town of Slavutich demonstrated publicly and managed to secure the release of their mayor (Note 1). Nevertheless, as the war unfolded, such actions have become increasingly risky since the occupier has started to rely on police trained in crowd control to handle these situations. (2)

If people want to express protest publicly, they can participate in small symbolic actions, like wearing a certain colour combination as a show of national unity against an occupier. Ukrainians today carry on this form of symbolic protest when they sing the national anthem, raise the Ukrainian flag or wear blue and yellow (3). In Tibet, which has been occupied by China since 1951, the symbol of resistance is the Dalai Lama. Showing his picture is forbidden, so when street vendors are selling pictures of the various Lamas which are not forbidden, they also have empty frames on display (4). Everyone knows that this is where the Dalai Lama should have been, and Tibetans place these empty frames on the walls at home. People are aware that they are representations of resistance, yet the Chinese occupier cannot forbid the selling of empty frames without making itself look ridiculous.

THE SCEPTIC: Okay, I understand that creativity in relation to symbolism can play a role in creating solidarity, but nobody in their right mind can believe this would be enough to get rid of an occupier?

Majken: You are right, it is not. That will require more daring actions, although it does not necessarily have to involve gathering of large crowds. In the occupied areas of Ukraine, strikes and boycotts and other forms of non-cooperation with the occupier are probably a better option. The Russian occupation administration, like all other occupiers, desires to operate undisturbed and uphold some image of legitimacy. If they want to hold a local election to present a façade of legitimacy, voters should boycott that election. If they want to introduce a Russian influenced curriculum in school, the parents and teachers could organise a parallel education system following the old Ukrainian curriculum. This is a type of action that involves many people and disturbs the administration of an occupation so it cannot uphold a façade of “business as usual”. There have been some small examples of this in Ukraine during the first months of the war (5), but to organise boycotts on a more widespread scale is different from spontaneous initiatives by small groups. Ideally, preparations for this nonviolent struggle should have started long ago, for instance with the Russian occupation of the Donbas and Crimea in 2014, instead of waiting until a full-scale Russian invasion. Now the Ukrainians would need to improvise an unarmed resistance, and organising during an ongoing occupation is, of course, much more challenging than if one has started to prepare in advance.

THE SCEPTIC: Everything is easier with more preparation, we can come back to that question later. But the situation is as it is, so what else could the Ukrainians do here and now?

Majken: All right, let us talk about that as a start.


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2 Responses to “Pacifism Today: A Dialogue about Alternatives to War in Ukraine”

  1. Alan says:

    I have download the booklet but not read it yet. I agree with the definition of a pacifist given above but I am concerned that any country can always be open to attack and that seems to mean that there must be a military force available for defence. It seems to be too late if an occupying force takes over. I am no longer convinced by arguments of deterrence, especially regarding nuclear weapons. I live in the UK and I think we should remove them because they make us a target for attack. One argument I would make to keep peaceful agreements between countries is that they should have a strong trading relationship and it should be free trade which I define as keeping the government completely out of it and leaving market forces free to operate. It really is governments that start wars and we need to severely limit their power. The American constitution was supposed to do this but politicians always find a way to increase their power. I am convinced that all the NGOs need to be closed, such as the UN, the WHO and NATO. They are responsible to nobody.

  2. Dr. Surya Nath Prasad says:

    Peace Education: An Alternative to War Education
    EDUCATION, 13 Jun 2022
    Dr. Surya Nath Prasad – TRANSCEND Media Service

    A Wrap-up Speech
    Dialogue among Civilizations for Peace
    By Surya Nath Prasad, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service
    The paper is based on the Wrap-up Speech delivered by Dr. Surya Nath Prasad on 27 September 2001 on the eve of the UN Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations and the 20th Anniversary of the UN Intl. Day of Peace, Kyung Hee University, Seoul, Korea

    On UCN News Channel
    A Dialogue on
    Universal Peace Education
    For Peace and Violence
    By Surya Nath Prasad, Ph.D.

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