Revolutionary Nonviolence and the Critiquing of David Dellinger

Nevertheless, they were favorites of life-long radical pacifist Dave Dellinger, who not only used the phrase as the title of his first major book, but also saw in those words an ability to best define his often-criticized politics: fighting for total liberation and social change, fighting without hate or guns or a desire to replace one oppressive power structure with another, albeit less oppressive, one. As the sub-title of the just-released David Dellinger: The Life and Times of A Nonviolent Revolutionary (New York University Press, 2006, 346 pp.), the progressive movement is offered another opportunity to understand this sometimes complicated man and his vision. Despite author Andrew E. Hunt’s substantial research, though, the book is fraught with major flaws-many of them stemming from Hunt’s own misunderstandings about the potential meaning and importance of both nonviolence and revolution in our turbulent times.

The book opens with news of Dellinger’s death in 2004 at age eighty-eight, citing supporters and critics alike about the remarkable life he led. In what becomes a style characteristic of the entire volume, Hunt quotes from mainstream, often conservative, sources, as well as from various movement friends and associates. The flat reporting of the views of Dellinger’s critics, however, implies-more often than not-that there is at least some merit in their disrespect. It matters little to this reviewer that right-wing radio talk show host and columnist Mike Rosen wrote, in assessing Dellinger’s contributions late in 2004, that Dave was "self indulgent, . . . hopelessly idealistic, a coercive utopian; a recidivist criminal, . . . an oxymoronic militant pacifist." Most significant is the fact that, on the following page, Hunt’s own summary, (while admitting that Dellinger was, "more than any other leading figure of the 1960s," a bridge between the Old and the New Left), centers around the idea that this was a life lived full of seemingly irreconcilable differences. Among these conflicts were that Dave was "a rigid Gandhian and an ideologically flexible supporter of various revolutionary movements overseas," and that he was a "methodical coalition organizer and a stubborn sectarian." What Hunt misses is the politics; one can be committed to the power of nonviolence and support a complete overhaul of the systems of capitalism, racism, and oppression. One can believe in the importance of a united front against war and still hold principled positions as a member of that front. Within these alleged contradictions are what some might call the dialectic: a springboard to action and thinking outside of the box, as opposed to a fundamental flaw.

Much writing is spent examining Dellinger’s childhood and formative student years. It is clear that Hunt has been granted important access to the people and papers that traveled with Dellinger throughout his life. The reader learns interesting background about his mentors as an undergraduate student at Yale, and tantalizing tidbits about his trips post-Yale to worn-torn Spain and to Germany in the late 1930s. We learn of the early creation of Gandhi-inspired community living arrangements in Harlem and Newark, and about the early anti-conscription movement on the eve of World War Two at Union Theological Seminary. Intense stories of Dave’s first hunger strikes and placement in solitary confinement, protesting segregation and censorship as a W.W.II conscientious objector imprisoned at Lewisburg Penitentiary, fill the early chapters. That A.J. Muste was tactically opposed to the almost two-month hunger strike is a fascinating historical footnote, as is the story that fellow c.o. Bill Sutherland was initially concerned that a strike against censorship would take needed energy and attention away from the anti-Jim Crow campaign; WRL’s own Ralph DiGia is cited as being one of the most militant antiracist protesters during his stint at Danbury. What is lacking amidst all this information is basic insight. Dellinger is consistently referred to as having "anarchical" politics, despite the fact that he was a young member of the Socialist Party, USA, and that recent conversations between this reviewer and Dave’s c.o. buddies and life-long friends Sutherland and DiGia suggest a more complicated ideological grounding. More problematic is Hunt’s own limited understanding and dismissal of the vital race-related issues of the era. At one point in the text, a litany of jailed World War Two objectors is given, including pacifist Hopi Indians, Japanese Americans outraged by the internment camps, members of the Nation of Islam, and disaffected Puerto Ricans. These groups are contrasted, in Hunt’s words, with "actual" (read: white) war resisters. This assessment is particularly striking, given how antithetical it was and would be to Dellinger’s own thinking on the matter.

The majority of The Life and Times has its focus, understandably, on the struggle to end the war in Viet Nam. The key organizations, demonstrations, and events of the period are discussed in some detail. Sweeping evaluations cloud the text, such as the basic idea that "Dellinger was not able to grasp the depth or breadth of the transformations occurring in American society during the 1960s." Hunt hardly dismisses Dellinger’s contributions, and at times he is noted for his commitment, his hard work, and his ability to hold together large groups of diverse people. But great attention is paid to Dellinger’s weaknesses, with some concentration on how others at the center of the anti-war efforts stepped into leadership roles that he irresponsibly abdicated. We learn that the Socialist Workers Party’s Fred Halstead was a more moderate and reasonable figure, that Mobilization staff person Sid Peck was the real hero of the October 1967 March on the Pentagon, and that Rennie Davis "ran the show" at the May 1970 moratorium events. Hunt even spotlights the reflections of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who took the liberty of not only coordinating the vicious air strikes on South East Asia, but also of suggesting the proper uses of Gandhian technique! McNamara wrote, and Hunt accepted without comment, that the demonstrators would have achieved more if they had been "more disciplined," an evaluation that-while possibly correct on some level-fails to recognize the intensity of uncoordinated and enraged anti-war sentiment that was being organized into single, multi-tendency and multi-tactic demonstrations by the Dellinger-led coalitions of the day.

Throughout Hunt’s appraisal of the Sixties, the movement is constantly in decline, with Dellinger looking foolish, weak, and playing into his enemies’ hands. The context of what is happening on the streets of the U.S., on predominantly white college campuses or predominantly Black inner city communities, is noticeably missing, as is any description of the devastation of Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos. Sloppy writing and analysis makes for confused reading, as we learn that the demonstrations in Chicago 1968 (for which Dellinger was indicted as a member of the infamous Chicago Eight), both "didn’t accomplish much" and "jolted the public’s collective consciousness." The mobilizations of 1969 and 1970 had "dismal turnouts" disappointing to many who were turned off by the decentralized turmoil and by Dellinger’s overly optimistic urgings; they also included the movement’s "largest mass march and rally," which attracted people from across the political spectrum. It isn’t surprising, as the book chronicles the end of the war, that Hunt cites as the primary, direct factor that led to peace not the anti-war actions, not the refusal of U.S. soldiers to fight, certainly not the resistance of the population of Viet Nam, but rather Nixon’s round-the-clock bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong.

Certainly biographers are not required to admire or agree with their subjects. What’s most disappointing about this biography is not the differences between author and subject, but the lack of clarity and honesty in bringing those differences into focus. Just as this reviewer was impressed by the breadth of sources cited and collected, I was saddened by the lack of depth in examining and presenting those sources. Just as I was pleased to see significant information on Dellinger’s work bringing U.S. Prisoners of War home in the mid-1970s, I was annoyed to find the last quarter century of his life reduced to twenty pages, much of it centering around the Alzheimer’s Disease that afflicted him in his last few years. Dave’s emphasis on the importance of work supporting U.S. political prisoners, with particular concern for American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier (who remains in jail after over thirty years), is mentioned in one sentence; his anti-nuclear work is minimized to one paragraph. Dellinger’s continuous work in solidarity with Viet Nam, coupled with his growing support of the movements in Central America and Puerto Rico, are largely omitted, or relegated to brief mentions. Most significantly missing is a sense of Dellinger’s voice: his respect for younger activists, his passionate anti-imperialism, his tough love for all people. Though The Life and Times of a Nonviolent Revolutionary may be necessary reading for those of us who collect every word written on the period, for those looking for a single volume on Dellinger, I recommend searching the used book bins of your local store or world wide web source, and finding Dave’s own More Power Than We Know, From Yale to Jail, Vietnam Revisited, or Revolutionary Nonviolence. It is hard to believe that all of these titles are out-of-print, and that no new edition-complete with a critical but fair assessment of Dellinger’s work added as an introduction or afterward has yet to make it to market.

Matt Meyer is co-chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and serves on the Coordinating Committee of the War Resisters League.

For information on Dave Dellinger’s life and writing, go to the Dave Dellinger website by Toward Freedom.