23 December 2015

Langston Hughes and Pragmatic Pacifism

In both his dispatches in the Spanish Civil War and his contemporaneous poetry of life in Black America, Langston Hughes brings forth, into the larger conversation of peace, justice, and human rights studies, a methodology that I call “pragmatic pacifism,” which imagines positive peace as a goal, while sustaining negative pacifist policy in the process of attaining that global culture of peace. With his theory, Hughes elevates the conquest of peace to a certainly realistic one, involving ruthlessly destroying foreign fascism, as well as systematically dismantling domestic racism. Given his violent methods for the former, however, it is difficult to declare Hughes a genuine pacifist without understanding his mixed ideologies and relabeling his beliefs under the structure of pragmatic pacifism, a methodology that he actively attempts to leverage in contemporaneous policy. Nevertheless, Hughes presents a novel style of pacifism that employs violent and militant techniques with pacifist motivations to instill a long-lasting culture of equal opportunity, regardless of demographic differences. This innovative technique for pacifism may ultimately be the most effective pacifist stance yet formulated, as it rests upon nonradical governmental changes, without necessitating the elimination of any government structures, such as the military, while simultaneously demanding massive societal reconsiderations, meriting the end of unjustified social practices, such as institutionalized racism.



Hughes’ pragmatic pacifism defies both major strategies of pacifism, positive and negative. By combining these methodologies in a process of violently destroying the inhibitors of positive peace, Spanish fascists, as well as actively pursuing the very traits he desired within the American realm of positive peace, systematic and institutionalized equality throughout the national sphere. However, prior to comprehending the many repercussions of pragmatic pacifism, one must analyse the ideological structures off of which it is based. Firstly, positive peace, the goal of the former philosophy, is what Sophie McGlynn, a past student in Peace Testimonies in Literature & Art at Haverford College, depicts as constructing “a world that is not only free of war, but where societies and institutions actively promote peace for all.” Thus, positive pacifism manifests itself in actively striving to dismantle hierarchies, striving to effect intersocietal relationships that foster equally distributed opportunities and potential for social mobility to all members of the populace. Greatly contrasting that is negative peace, an idea which Johan Galtung, a Norwegian sociologist and popular theorist in peace and conflict studies, defines simply as “the absence of violence.” In practice, negative pacifism insists upon ending war, or, at a minimum, maintaining what Naomi Chazan, well renowned Israeli feminist professor-turned-politician, dubs “conflict management.” Negative pacifism, however, exists more frequently as an approach to leverage violent, militant policies in order to dismantle alternative, non-pacifist military actions afar. This is largely the strategy of much of the world during the Spanish Civil War—employing momentary violence, the International Brigades, to, in time, defeat the ongoing physical and societal threats to Spain, the Spanish fascists. However, Hughes sustains an approach of combining both positive and negative outlooks on pacifism to form his own novel pacifism, via explicitly encouraging the international battle against the Spanish fascists within both his poetry and his dispatches, while simultaneously praising the equal opportunities among platoons possessing diverse demographics and encouraging similar egalitarian policies in the United States.

In terms of international militaristic policy, Hughes’ goals of achieving global peace via eliminating those who instill violence fall in line with negative pacifism in his determination to dismantle violence with force. In this light, Hughes makes clear that, by murdering Spanish fascists, whom he declares, in his poem “Love Letter from Spain,” to be “Jim Crow peoples,” in reference to their institutionalized racism against people of color (2/8). Thus, in pursuing militant action against them, he assists the likeminded peace-bringers of the world in ridding Spain of the people actively setting fields, cities, and people aflame in their conquest of the nation. In this poem, Hughes’ pacifist values are apparent, as he approves negative pacifist action by popularizing murderous violence for a positive pacifist cause—effecting a newfound, racially egalitarian Spain.

However, counterintuitively, all rhetoric aside, the logic backing Hughes’ strategy for pacifism is identical with that of the fascists’ plan for power: eliminate any embodiments of different ideologies, for a greater, ambiguous endgoal. But, regardless of Hughes’ potentially fascist logical support in his utilization of negative pacifist practices, his methodology may nevertheless be most compelling in its potential to concretize a finality of positive peace within Spanish society. Indeed, one must note the total casualty count throughout the Spanish Civil War, best estimated by Eric Solsten and Sandra W. Meditz, researchers at Sam Houston State University, at approximately 600,000. Given the undeniably short timespan of this murderous nightmare in Spanish history, it may be reasonable to assume that nonviolent pacifism simply wouldn’t have worked in instilling the positive peace for which so many pacifists yearned. The melancholic truth of this era is that, despite the numerous children’s colonies and deliveries of foodstuffs to victims of the war, without violent opposition to the already growingly violent forces, the Spanish Civil War would have likely become the Spanish Civil Massacre, and Hughes’ pragmatically negative pacifism may have been the only methodology to prevent the destruction of Spain in its entirety, a poor yet regrettably reasonable baseline for determining the best given ideology.

Complementary to Hughes’ negative pacifist techniques for potentially positive outcomes is Hughes’ grandiose justification of militaries as sub-societal organizations, due to their potential to inculcate a culture of positive peace via racial equality within the international sphere. Hughes describes Abraham Lewis, a Quartermaster in the International Brigades in Spain, as a shining example of the International Brigades allotting Black Americans significantly higher potential for social mobility: “He is proud of the opportunity which the International Brigades have given him to make use of his full capacities for organizational and administrative work… [I]n America such opportunities come too seldom to members of the darker race” (“Fighters” 2). Indeed, as Lewis states in the same article, “A colored person has a chance to develop here” (qtd. in “Fighters” 2). Thus, Hughes’ journalistic reports confirm his view of international military organizations as a positive force of cultural egalitarianism, consistently promoting the very traits American society contemporaneously lacks.

Simultaneously, in encouraging militaries’ existence for their potential to revolutionize intersocietal relationships to maximize global egalitarianism, he enlightens his readers to the horrid racial inopportunity in Black America, through his poetry. In “The Heart of Harlem,” for example, he depicts Harlem as “a song with a minor refrain” (192). modulating into reality his sad vision of the neighborhood as inherent dejected. Additionally, more concretely, in “Harlem Night,” Hughes documents the Harlem sky’s absence of both stellar and lunar activity (194). While this may seem to solely illustrate the lack of light reaching Harlem from the heavens, it is critical note that, ultimately, the White, economically privileged New York neighborhoods’ b√Ętimental luminosity is what blinds Harlem from the skies, its metaphorical potential, forcing Hughes’ readers to grapple with racist America. Thus, Hughes, in his poetry, manifests the domestic problems he strives to fix, ultimately presenting the apparent lack of egalitarianism in Black America outside of the International Brigades. This serves the grander purpose of both adding public attention to social inopportunity and confirming the military as a potential breeding ground for egalitarianism on a national scale.

Thus, in both his journalistic dispatches, highlighting the emerging racial equality within the international brigades, and his poetry, largely inspired by the rampant racism in American society, Hughes brings forth pragmatic pacifism as a new methodology for peace-bringing. Hughes utilises negative pacifist techniques for their effectiveness in destroying any long-term threats of violence and despair, while concurrently focusing, in his dispatches, on the existence of the International Brigades in Spain as a breeding ground for racial equality and exposing, in his poetry, the harsh injustices permeating Black America. With those dual foci, he presents a pragmatic pacifism that is limitedly radical, by maintaining social structures such as militaries, and yet equally fiery towards stopping systematic inopportunity within America. And yet, his lessons remain more arduous than many desire. His suggestions of pursuing peace via both wiping out negative opposition and encouraging like-minded ideologies echo the faux-logical backings of fascism, and, taken to their theoretical extent, could force global society into its demise before positive peace may even begin. As well, they rely upon strict governance and policing of militaristic organizations, global sub-societies that, in their development over the last century, have become shining examples of unjustified racism and sexism. However, pervading his words is a beautiful, undefiled hope, an aspiration for a world that allows any member of any demographic background to attain his or her ultimate desires, one’s community serving as a backboard for success, rather than an unsurmountable obstacle. He scribes his pages with a quill of blood, and, in the wake of his works, he forms new life, all with a gun resting on his shoulder.

Works Cited

Chazan, Naomi. "Three Questions for the Prime Minister." Web log post. The Times of Israel. Blogs.TimesofIsrael.com, 11 Aug. 2014. Web. 24 Nov. 2015. .


Galtung, Johan. "Positive/Negative Peace." Introduction. Positive/Negative Peace. Fairfax: George Mason U School for Conflict Analysis & Resolution, n.d. N. pag. Positive/Negative Peace. George Mason University. Web. 24 Nov. 2015. .


Hughes, Langston. “Fighters from Other Lands Look to Ohio Man for Food.” Baltimore Afro-American. 8 January 1938: 2. Proquest. Web. 7 April 2014.


----------. “Harlem Night.” The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Ed. by Arnold Rampersad. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995: 194.


----------. “The Heart of Harlem.” The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Ed. by Arnold Rampersad. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995: 192.


----------. “Howard Man Fighting as Spanish Loyalist.” Baltimore Afro-American. 5 February 1938: 5. Proquest. Web. 7 April 2014.


----------. “Love Letter From Spain: Addressed to Alabama.” The Daily Worker. 23 January 1938: 2/8.


McGlynn, Sophie. ""World Justice Means World Peace."" Testimonies in Art & Action: Igniting Pacifism in the Face of Total War. Haverford College, 2015. Web. 24 Nov. 2015. .


Meditz, Sandra W. Ed. Eric Solsten. The Spanish Civil War. Sam Houston State University, 1988. Web. 24 Nov. 2015. .

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