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pacifism, advocacy of opposition to war through individual or collective action against militarism. Although complete, enduring peace is the goal of all pacifism, the methods of achieving it differ. Some groups oppose international war but advocate revolution for suppressed nationalities; others are willing to support defensive but not offensive war; others oppose all war, but believe in maintaining a police force; still others believe in no coercive or disciplinary force at all.


One of the strongest motivations in the promotion of peace has been religion, the objection to war being, in general, based on the belief that the willful taking of human life is wrong. The Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, decry war and advocate nonresistance. There has also been a strong pacifistic element in Judaism and Christianity. The Sermon on the Mount, in particular, contains a strong exhortation to peace. The church generally voiced opposition to war as such (with the notable exception of the Crusades); in the Middle Ages the truce of God was the outcome of ecclesiastical attempts to halt private warfare. Some later sects—especially the Anabaptists, Quakers, Moravians, Dukhobors, and Mennonites—have elevated nonresistance to a doctrinal position.

Another motivating force in pacifism has been humanitarianism and the humanitarian outrage at the destruction caused by war. Economic motives have also played a part in pacifist arguments; the pacifists condemn the economic waste of war, which they claim is avoidable. International cooperation and pacifism are closely connected, and pacifists usually advocate international agreements as a way to insure peace. Pacifism is also closely connected with movements for international disarmament.

Pacifism in the Nineteenth Century

Modern pacifism began early in the 19th cent., with peace societies that were formed in New York (1815), Massachusetts (1815), and Great Britain (1816). Other countries followed, and societies were established in France and Switzerland not long afterward. In 1828 William Ladd, one of the early pacifists, welded the many local societies that had been established in the United States into the American Peace Society. Soon more radical pacifists came to the fore, and the peace movement in the United States became connected with other causes under the leadership of such men as Elihu Burritt and William Lloyd Garrison. However, Garrison later abandoned his pacifism and advocated war to end slavery.

The first international peace congress met in London in 1843, marking the earliest attempt to organize on an international scale. Both the Mexican War and the Crimean War checked development temporarily, and the Civil War completely destroyed for the moment the peace movement in the United States. After the Civil War the movement reappeared in new forms, influenced strongly by the internationalists. The efforts of Frédéric Passy in France and of Sir William Randal Cremer in Great Britain led to the foundation of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in 1892. The International Peace Bureau was founded at Bern, Switzerland in 1892. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize (see Nobel, Alfred Bernhard) did much to encourage pacifist thought. Even the Franco-Prussian and Spanish-American wars did not check the spread of peace agitation.

Pacifism in the Twentieth Century

The peace societies, the international organizations, and the Hague Conferences of the 19th cent., were all powerless to check the rush of events to World War I. Although the percentage of conscientious objectors was small, after the war the peace movement reappeared with greater vigor than before, and, in spite of increased nationalism throughout the world, a concerted effort toward peace was made not only in the peace congresses but also in such agitation as the pacifist resolution (1933) of the Students' Union at Oxford.

During the 1920s and early 30s pacifism enjoyed an upsurge; the doctrine of nonresistance as applied in India by Mohandas K. Gandhi gained attention and respect for the movement. The hopes placed in the League of Nations, however, failed to materialize, and some pacifists placed their trust in isolationism and appeasement as events led to World War II. This time the number of conscientious objectors in the United States and Great Britain was larger than in World War I.

After World War II broken international contacts were again restored; a world pacifist conference projected for 1949 in India was postponed because of the assassination of Gandhi. At its meeting in 1948 the World Council of Churches was unable to reach agreement in regard to pacifism and the church. Although pacifists were not very active in the United States during the Korean War in the early 1950s, this was not the case during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 70s; pacifists and other antiwar groups joined together for several major protest marches in Washington, D.C. and other cities. Recent pacifist movements have tended to concentrate their efforts on urging unilateral or multilateral disarmament and the cessation of nuclear testing (see disarmament, nuclear).

Prominent Pacifists

The presence of ardent pacifists among the prominent figures in the literary and artistic worlds has had an effect in spreading the aims of the movement. The writings of Bertha von Suttner and of Ludwig Quidde demonstrate how pacifism may be espoused in fictional writing. Apart from such statesmen as Aristide Briand, William Jennings Bryan, Frank Kellogg, and Ramsay MacDonald, among other notable names in pacifism are Leo Tolstoy, Jane Addams, Élie Ducommun, Guglielmo Ferrero, Albert Gobat, Alfred H. Love, David Starr Jordan, Sir Norman Angell, Nicholas Murray Butler, Philip Noel-Baker, Bertrand Russell, Martin Luther King, Jr., A. J. Muste, Staughton Lynd, and Dr. Benjamin Spock. Among the many agencies and associations that have been organized for the advancement of world peace are the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, War Resisters International, and International Peace Bureau.


See D. Martin, Pacifism (1965); P. Brock, Pacifism in the United States (1968) and Twentieth-Century Pacifism (1970); R. Seeley, The Handbook of Non-violence (1986); D. Brown, Biblical Pacifism (1986).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



an antiwar movement whose adherents believe that the principal means of preventing war is to condemn its immoral character. Pacifists condemn all wars, denying the legitimacy of just wars of liberation. They believe that by means of persuasion and peaceful demonstrations it is possible to prevent wars, without eliminating the socioeconomic and political conditions that give rise to them. Associated with bourgeois liberal ideology, pacifism draws fairly broad democratic circles under its influence.

The first pacifist organizations were founded in Great Britain and the USA after the Napoleonic Wars. By the late 1880’s and early 1890’s the pacifist movement had a large following. International congresses of pacifists repeatedly made proposals for the prohibition of wars, the implementation of universal disarmament, and the settlement of disputes between states in international courts of arbitration. Pacifism distracted the masses from an active struggle against imperialism during periods of revolutionary upsurge. Under the conditions that emerged during World War I, V. I. Lenin regarded the pacifists’ abstract preaching of peace—pronouncements without any relation to the anti-imperialist struggle—as “one of the means of duping the working class” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 26, p. 165).

Since World War II the balance of forces in the world arena has shifted in favor of socialism, and broad strata of the population in various countries have become involved in the struggle for peace. In connection with these postwar developments, the Communist and workers’ parties, noting the inadequacy and the limitations of pacifism, have endeavored to unite all peace-loving forces—including pacifists who sincerely seek to prevent war— in a struggle against the threat of war posed by imperialism. Many pacifists and some pacifist organizations have joined the peace movement.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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