Tag Archives: war

Image, supplied by Ukraine Department of Defense, illustrates the ferocity of the Ukraine war

In Ukraine, Neither Side Is Blameless

Richard Sandbrook and Arnd Jurgensen

Richard Sandbrook is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at University of Toronto. Arnd Jurgensen lectures in international relations at University of Toronto. Both are executive members of Science for Peace, whose board members debated the issues discussed here.

One prevalent explanation of the war in Ukraine pins the blame on Russia; the other, which has little institutional backing in the West, but far more outside the West, blames NATO. Proponents of each view largely ignore the opposing interpretation. Both sides agree the war is illegal under international law, but there the agreement ends. For those who blame NATO, their declaration of the illegality of the invasion is largely a formality because, from their viewpoint, NATO provoked Russia to invade Ukraine. For those who blame Russia, the invasion is not only illegal under international law but also a travesty of “unprovoked” aggression.

Yet neither side is blameless in this terrible war. To acknowledge that fact is an important step to envisioning a just and lasting settlement.

Conflicting Viewpoints

Consider first the anti-NATO interpretation. They see the existence of NATO as a problem. It is not hard to understand why.

NATO portrays itself as a strictly defensive club of democracies that share basic values and is compelled to admit other North Atlantic states that ascribe to them. Yet all military alliances need an enemy to justify their existence. The external threat that gave rise to the alliance – the USSR and the Warsaw Pact – disappeared in 1991, as should have NATO. NATO lost an opportunity in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union expired, to build bridges to Russia. NATO’s expansion to the borders of Russia and its willingness to arm and contemplate future membership of Ukraine and Georgia in NATO were provocations. Russia considers Ukraine as within its cultural, economic and political sphere of influence. Russia, of course, does not have a “right” to a sphere of influence, any more than does the United States in its own neighbourhood. But spheres of influence have always gone along with Great-Power status, whether we think it justified or not, Russia would inevitably feel threatened if NATO and the European Union incorporated Ukraine, with its close historical links and proximity to Russia, within its “Western” sphere.

However, from the opposing viewpoint, Russia for its part has made aggressive moves that frightened its neighbours. Eastern European states were not forced to join NATO; they applied for membership because, from historical experience, they mistrusted Russia. Within historical memory are Stain’s partnership with Hitler, 1939-1941, and the postwar imposition of Communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe. In recent years, the intervention of Russian forces in Georgia and Moldova and covert use of Russian troops in Ukraine’s Donbass in support of separatists have rekindled the fears of former Soviet client states. Moreover, the brutality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has stirred further resentment and fear in neighbouring states, such as Finland and Sweden (who are now joining NATO). 

In short, neither side is without some responsibility for this dreadful and unnecessary war.

Blame and Conflict Resolution

Apportionment of blame for the current conflict, however, is currently a distraction from the need to bring the war to an end. Such discussions must at some point take place to determine issues of reparations in the context of negotiations, but they must not derail attempts to engineer a ceasefire. The same is true concerning international law. Clearly the invasion of Ukrainian territory was a violation of the sovereignty of a recognized state, and it is, as such, a crime of aggression (which, as Justice Robert Jackson of the Nuremberg tribunals explained, is the highest crime under international law as it entails all the evils war necessarily brings with it). The United Nations Charter also recognizes the right to self-determination of nations, which implies the right of the Donbass and Crimea to declare their independence from Ukraine (a principle that NATO endorsed with its armed intervention in Kosovo).

These principles, again, raise issues that must ultimately be resolved; but disagreements on these issues must not stand in the way of ending the killing and destruction in Ukraine. Other oft-cited issues are also irrelevant to a settlement, including corruption in Ukraine or autocracy in Russia. These issues are relevant for the people of Ukraine and Russia, as are the personality traits of their leaders, but not to the need to end this war.

At present, neither side is inclined toward negotiations and a cessation of hostilities. Negotiations will have to take place sometime – unless Russia achieves total victory (and it’s not clear what that would look like), or Ukraine does (which is highly unlikely, given Russia’s much larger pool of recruits for the armed forces and actual and potential firepower). A Ukrainian victory would also risk igniting a nuclear war. However, if the upcoming Ukraine counter-offensive ends in stalemate, both sides may judge that their interests are best served by negotiating a peace settlement.

Reconciling Conflicting Principles

What might be the terms of a settlement that is (barely) acceptable to both sides? If we accept the shared responsibility for this war, each side will have to compromise. A resolution demands that two principles of international law be recognized: the inadmissibility of aggression leading to land-grabs, and the right of peoples to self-determination, if a clear majority opts for this outcome. Boundaries will have to be drawn that reflect the preferences of those who live within them. Unless the borders reflect such preferences, they will remain unstable and a future source of conflict.

There is no prospect of the ongoing destruction moving in the direction of resolving this dimension of the conflict. Instead, a UN monitored process of consultation and popular referenda would be most likely to produce such an outcome. To have legitimacy, the vote must include those who have fled their homes as well as those who have stayed. These boundaries will also have to be secure. In the long term, that can only happen through neutrality for Ukraine, border guarantees, and the creation of a new security architecture including Russia (perhaps including the withdrawal of long-range missiles from Poland).

Recognizing the Dangers, Forging Peace

The need for action is acute. If Ukraine should strike into Russian-held territory, using western weapons and intelligence, the possibility of escalation and nuclear war rises ever higher. Ukraine has the right to defend itself, but can Ukraine ever defeat a nuclear power with a much larger armed forces, even with weapons from the West?

To let this conflict fester poses an unacceptable risk to the survival of humanity. The only sane position is peace negotiations now – based on the notion of shared responsibility for this war.

Disinformation, or Debating with a Bot

Disinformation, or Debating with a Bot

“Disinformation” undoubtedly exists as a form of warfare in this contentious age of artificial intelligence. But how do we know disinformation when we come across it? The obvious danger is that officials and activists will dismiss strongly opposing views as disinformation, not to be taken seriously, or, at worse as potential sedition to be investigated.

An article in the March 30th (2023) Globe & Mail (Toronto) exemplifies this danger. Entitled “Pro-Kremlin Twitter Accounts ‘Weaponizing’ Users to Erode Canadians’ Support for Ukraine, Study Finds,” the article suggests that 200,000 Twitter accounts have been established in Canada that propagate the Kremlin’s line on Ukraine. The purported aim of this campaign is to undermine Canadian support for the Ukrainian government. Three centres, two at universities, conducted the study, which was supported financially by the Canadian and United States governments. Allegedly, the disinformation campaign succeeded to the extent that both “far right” and “far left” Twitter accounts extensively “shared’” the disinformation on their own networks.

What is the evidence for the impact of this alleged disinformation campaign? The article notes that 36 per cent of respondents in a recent Canadian survey believed that NATO was responsible for the war, or were unsure. Clearly, the writers of the report (entitled “Enemy of My Enemy”) believe that NATO holds no responsibility for the war. To uphold the opposite view is tantamount to disinformation or being uninformed.

And yet the idea that NATO provoked, or at least did not act to prevent, the war is not far-fetched or merely Russian propaganda. Neither side is blameless. NATO portrays itself as a strictly defensive club of democracies that share basic values and are compelled to admit other states that ascribe to them. Yet all military alliances need an enemy to justify their existence. The external threat that gave rise to the alliance – the USSR and the Warsaw Pact – disappeared in 1991, as should have NATO. NATO lost an opportunity in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union expired, to build bridges to Russia. NATO’s expansion to the borders of Russia and its willingness to arm and contemplate future membership of Ukraine in NATO were provocations. Russia considers Ukraine as within its cultural and political sphere of influence; Russian fears of NATO’s intentions are thus not unreasonable. However, Russia for its part has made aggressive moves in Georgia, Moldova and elsewhere that have rekindled the fears of former client states of the Soviet Union. The brutality of its invasion of Ukraine is unjustifiable. Neither side is without some responsibility for this dreadful and unnecessary war.

Consequently, debates are raging in academic and activist circles over apportioning responsibility for the conflict. Moreover, the left (contrary to the report’s view of a homogeneity of views) is split in its interpretation of the war, leading to many acrimonious exchanges.

It might be argued that the report itself is an example of disinformation. The article that describes the report provides no criteria for distinguishing the Twitter accounts engaged in disinformation, other than that the views they propound cohere with themes of the Russian narrative. The report veers toward the Red Scare techniques of the Cold war. But let’s be clear: you can advocate the view that NATO shares part of the blame for the war without in any way being part of Russia’s disinformation campaign.

Having said this much, I must also state that disinformation does exist. I know because I have debated with a bot. On a Canada-wide network of peace activists, I have been critical of those who jump to the conclusion that the war in Ukraine is a NATO war. Bots entered the intellectual fray, but one of them was very poorly programmed. It acted like a parody of a bot: in one message, claiming to speak on behalf of the ostensibly Western-oppressed “Third World” (this archaic term itself being a tip-off); in the next as an outraged representative of the people of the Donbass, allegedly brutalized by the “Nazi” government in Kyiv. It was over the top in the most extreme version of Russian disinformation and bombast. It was a stupid bot. Bots like this give artificial intelligence a bad name.

The global situation is complex. Yes, there is disinformation undertaken by Russian agencies. But let us be careful not to equate disinformation with any ideas that conflict with the dominant Western narrative. If we allow that to happen, we will find ourselves returning to the era of US Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, with his “unamerican activities committee” rooting out fellow travelers of the Communists.

Those in Canada who dissent on the war are not “unCanadian” and rarely are they engaging in disinformation. We may disagree with their positions. Yet that disagreement is a healthy aspect of our democracy. And yes, disinformation and bots are real; but some of the bots are laughably stupid.

a large crowd engaged in nonviolent resistance

Demilitarization: Is It Time for Civilian-Based Defence?

“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

Albert Einstein’s famous comment is more profoundly true today than when he uttered it in 1946. As the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists explained in 2015, Einstein’s understanding of this old mode of thinking still defined the prevailing national security doctrine of all major states. It’s time for a change in thinking.

Old Thinking

National-security doctrine includes the typical belief “that the best defense is a good offense; that any military buildup by an enemy must be matched or exceeded; that wars can—indeed, must—be fought against hateful and dangerous concepts such as terrorism and communism; and that nuclear bombs are like conventional ones, just more powerful.” The basic idea mirrors fistfights between school children: you need to be bigger and tougher than your opponent.

But in today’s world of nuclear proliferation and deadlier nuclear weapons, this old thinking threatens our survival. By calculation or inadvertence, a nuclear exchange, even if limited, will kill tens of millions, stunt the lives of many more, induce widespread famines, and accelerate global warming.

We still await the new thinking that will release us from the existing balance of terror among nuclear-armed states. Nuclear disarmament is an ever more distant prospect. Human nature remains unchanged. Disputes among nations will always emerge. And we need international cooperation to avert the slow-motion catastrophe of climate change. What shall we do? Part of the answer may lie in an old idea that is still new.

New Thinking: For the 1980s and Today

Gene Sharp, in the 1980s, offered bold, thinking, that remains fresh today. This thinking departed markedly from national-security doctrine. Supported by the Albert Einstein Institution, Sharp advocated a complex nonviolent defence system – “civilian-based defense.” He summarized this concept in an article in 1980, illustrated it in a book on Making Europe Unconquerable in 1983, and elaborated it in a theoretical volume in 1990. Sharp offers a hard-headed scheme to supplement and (eventually) replace military weapons systems with a nonviolent weapons system based in civil society.

Unfortunately, discussion of this innovative approach receded with the end of the Cold War. The ascendant meme of “an end of history,” an idealized liberal-democratic order supervised by the sole superpower, seemed to render this alternative irrelevant.

However, the end of history was short-lived. With the rise of multi-polarity, authoritarianism, climate crisis, and more murderous nuclear weapons, it may be time to revisit the idea of civilian-based defence (CBD).

Civilian-Based Defence: What Is It?

Summarizing this approach is not easy. Sharp’s 1990 book – Civilian-Based Defense – is heavy going. The reader begins with mastering Sharp’s ideas on nonviolent action, which he presented in their fullest form in a massive three-volume work in 1973. (He identified 198 methods of nonviolent action, organized in three categories, while warning that the list was not comprehensive.) The reader then proceeds to the intricacies of applying this analysis to national defence. CBD aims to prevent internal usurpation of power, deter potential aggressors, and defeat invaders, all in the context of nuclear-armed states and the primacy of national-security doctrine.

Here, is Sharp’s own summary from his 1990 book. Civilian-based defense

is a policy [whereby] the whole population and the society’s institutions become the fighting forces. Their weaponry consists of a vast variety of forms of psychological, economic, social, and political resistance and counter-attack. This policy aims to deter attacks and to defend against them by preparations to make the society unrulable by would-be tyrants and aggressors. The trained population and the society’s institutions would be prepared to deny attackers their objectives and to make consolidation of political control impossible. These aims would be achieved by applying massive and selective noncooperation and defiance. In addition, where possible, the defending country would aim to create maximum international problems for the attackers and to subvert the reliability of their troops and functionaries. (pp.2-3)

In sum, Sharp contends that the power of society and its institutions can (in most cases, and at some point) displace military weapons in defence, even in the context of nuclear-armed states. CBD is not insurrection, if insurgency involves “a violent uprising against authority or government” (Oxford dictionary). Indeed, an armed insurgency will, according to Sharp, undermine the effectiveness of civilian defense. Instead, nonviolent action works through non-cooperation and obstruction nationally, through rallying international support, and through eroding the morale and loyalty of the usurper/aggressor’s home base, troops; and functionaries. Nonviolent defence makes starkly evident  who is responsible for brutality and repression – and who courageously and unthreateningly resists illegitimate domination.

You may, by now, judge that Sharp’s idea is indeed bold, but also outrageous in its impracticability. To allay this understandable reaction, I summarize some of Sharp’s qualifications and provisos, scattered here and there in his works:

  • CBD is not a philosophy like pacifism. It is a realistic strategic alternative to war in thwarting internal usurpers, deterring potential aggressors and defeating attackers. It is a method of struggle to deny an opponent his goals. But it is not a panacea. CBD may fail. Even if it succeeds, it may involve many casualties – though many fewer than would result from a conventional or nuclear war.
  • CBD, for many countries, would supplement their military capability, not displace it. Military commanders might regard CBD as an added deterrent to would-be aggressors. Over time, as CBD proves itself viable through training of the populace, as its popularity grows, and as detailed research on its effectiveness expands, the military capability may shrink. Incrementalism is key.
  • CBD is best suited to small and medium countries, especially small countries that have never developed a military. Superpowers are more problematical, as they derive leverage and prestige from military might. But even nuclear powers might accept CBD as a supplement, especially if it is demanded by a public out of patriotism and concern to defend their way of life. For many countries – for example, those that belong to NATO – treaty obligations hinder CBD. Such countries will need to withdraw from formal alliances;  military budgets will decline. International support, however, is an important prop of CBD, so the withdrawal will require careful preparation.
  • Although ideal social conditions are not prerequisites for CBD, both social harmony and strong democratic institutions are conducive to its success. CBD is a non-partisan, “all-of-society” approach. It is therefore difficult to introduce into societies with deep partisan divisions, such as the United States today. In addition, CBD is intrinsically democratic. Citizens of both sexes and all ages participate. The process empowers people by giving them the tools to resist tyranny and injustice. People reinforce democratic institutions by taking direct, collective responsibility for defending themselves against usurpers and foreign threats.
  • No blueprint of an effective nonviolent campaign exists or could exist. Circumstances matter. Strategies vary with circumstances. Therefore, people and leaders must be trained in the variety and stages of nonviolent resistance. These stages are basically three: the initial warnings through all communications media of the society’s willingness to fight, followed if necessary by “nonviolent blitzkrieg”, and then “programmed general resistance”. Leaders must be not only skilled in strategy and tactics, but also courageous and resolute. The practitioners of CBD will encounter repression, including imprisonment, torture and death. Regardless, the resistance must persist, even if tactical retreats are made. Although there is no guarantee of success, persistence bolsters internal morale, attracts international sympathy and support, and may undermine the loyalty of the aggressor’s support base. Collaborators, troops, functionaries and even the home population are repelled when unarmed protesters are brutally suppressed. But a major challenge is to maintain nonviolent discipline; resorts to violence resulting in deaths foment fear and revenge in opponents.

Even this summary may, I hope, demonstrate that CBD, whether it succeeds or not, is a serious form of struggle, not simply a utopian yearning.

What Are the Benefits?

If it is feasible to introduce CBD, what are the potential benefits?  What follows is a paraphrase of Sharp’s responses, supplemented as indicated by additional benefits in today’s peculiar circumstances:

  • The reduction of offensive weapons that accompanies the expansion of civil defense renders war, and especially nuclear war, less likely. The wider the acceptance of CBD, the less war remains an option. As national societies render themselves “indigestible” (Sharp’s word) through the adoption of CBD, armed invasions become unpalatable. Getting bogged down in an interminable occupation among a uniformly hostile population trained in nonviolent action is a debilitating prospect. Invasions, if they do occur, will cause fewer casualties and less damage than military warfare. Moreover, the reduction of lethal military threats allows for the growth of international cooperation. Holding nuclear arsenals becomes less important when the threat of nuclear strikes diminishes. Nuclear disarmament becomes possible.
  • Although Sharp did not address global warming, CBD would enhance the possibility of successfully tackling this looming threat. Solving the climate crisis requires global cooperation, which is more likely to emerge when the major carbon emitters are not armed to the teeth. Furthermore, as CBD develops, it will allow for the redirection of substantial resources – financial, intellectual and technological – from military defense to fighting global warming (and poverty). CBD might evolve into Civilian Protection Corps, in which citizens of a certain age (say, 20-50) are expected to receive occasional training not only in nonviolent action, but also in responding to “natural” emergencies and disasters. As the incidence of floods, forest fires, devastating storms and extreme heat mounts, the curriculum of CBD might shift to accommodate emergency services. Switzerland, Norway and Sweden have long had civil protection systems; CBD in the current era would build on this experience.
  • Internal, as well as interstate, wars are less likely as CBD expands. When facing a society that is forearmed to defeat usurpers, would-be dictators will think twice. Moreover, the spread of nonviolent norms to resolve conflicts shapes the rules of the political game; consequently, disaffected groups are less likely to resort to violence to achieve their goals. The citizens of fragile state would thus also benefit from CBD.
  • CBD is “intrinsically democratic”, according to Sharp. CBD reinforces pluralism by strengthening civil society. The shared knowledge and practice of nonviolent action empowers people by building their self-reliance. People learn that freedom is not free – it comes at a price. But the price is not high when the training and curriculum changes associated with CBD enhance societal solidarity and mutual protection in a dangerous world.

If the benefits are this plentiful, what are we waiting for?

The Possibilities

Civilian-based defense remains a challenging proposal. It flies in the face of the conventional wisdom on national security (unless CBD is viewed only as a supplement to military force). Both the military-industrial-intellectual complex and insecure or would-be authoritarian leaders will regard the idea as absurd or dangerous. CBD has no place in mainstream textbooks on international relations (as far as I can determine). Is it then just a marginal, if courageous, initiative, best dismissed even by peace activists?

I think a dismissive approach is mistaken, or at least, premature. We have instances of successful CBD. Furthermore, we confront inter-related and devastating threats whose resolution seems to require intervention by an aroused citizenry. Governments. trapped by old thinking and vested interests, have been unable to limit ever-more deadly weapons of mass destruction, to halt an out-of-control climate crisis, to overcome vast and growing inequalities, and to reverse authoritarian tendencies. To preserve and deepen democracy while creating a world worth living in, nonviolent action may prove to be an essential tool.

In fact, CBD has worked effectively in the past, and thus presumably may do so again. Sharp draws on 16 country examples in his 1990 book. These cases involve anti-colonial struggles (4), revolts against Communist rule (4), struggle against domination by a powerful neighbour (2), and resistance to internal oppression/human-rights violations (6). The degree of effective struggle varies widely; some failed while others achieved much success (eg. the Gandhian movement in India and the civil rights movement in the USA).

Srdja Popovic’s Blueprint for Revolution offers more recent examples of nonviolent resistance, mostly to defeat internal usurpers. He also updates Sharp’s strategy and tactics, especially for youth in the digital age He  includes an entertaining section on “laughtivism”. Popovic and his colleagues now coach resistance movements worldwide on the strategy and tactics of nonviolence. How much more effective might Sharp’s exemplary resistance movements have been if they had the benefit of this accumulated wisdom? Instead, the resisters had to invent nonviolence in the moment?

In assessing possibilities, we should recall that  this is the age of nonviolent protest. Such widespread use of nonviolent action may prepare the soli for CBD.

Scattered protests prior to the 2007‒09 world-financial crash were followed by a staggering array of non-violent protests worldwide in 2010‒20. In 2019, the most extensive wave of rebellion since 1968 erupted, curtailed only by the onset of the pandemic in 2021. As Wright records, the latter protests erupted in six continents and 114 countries, affecting liberal democracies as well as dictatorships:

Movements have emerged overnight, out of nowhere, unleashing public fury on a global scale — from Paris and La Paz to Prague and Port-au-Prince, Beirut to Bogota and Berlin, Catalonia to Cairo, and in Hong Kong, Harare, Santiago, Sydney, Seoul, Quito, Jakarta, Tehran, Algiers, Baghdad, Budapest, London, New Delhi, Manila, and even Moscow. Taken together, the protests reflect unprecedented political mobilization.

In 2020 the United States experienced the most extensive civil unrest since the 1960s’ civil rights and anti-war protests. Social learning about effective civil disobedience through social media had a lot to do with the unrest, together with the erosion of democracy under the aegis of Trump and other nativist-populist leaders.

Popular rebellions signaled the need to reconstruct broken social contracts. Local irritants and injustices, from hikes in transit fares, to corruption, authoritarian tendencies and racist incidents, provided the spark. Yet whatever precipitated them, protests manifested a deeper anger with the prevailing order. A common theme was that self-serving elites had seized too much power and wealth. But the ongoing polarization between nativist-populists and left-liberals leaves open the question of how the social contract will be reconstituted.

Nevertheless, the rise of nonviolent protest worldwide furnishes a propitious environment for reconsideration of the practicability of CBD.


Peace activists have long denounced militarism and supported demilitarization. Yet they lack a strategy for achieving this goal. Disarmament is not on the horizon. Military budgets increase on all sides. More deadly weapons appear. Tensions between rival powers intensify – tensions involving not only the United States, Russia and China, but also Iran, Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan. Militarism is on an upswing.

Civilian-based defense is a potential strategy for achieving demilitarization, social solidarity, and the overthrow of tyrants. It provides an antidote to internal wars in fragile states. It can be extended to nonviolent peacekeeping missions in divided countries. A Civilian Protection Corps can supply training not only in nonviolent defence, but also in disaster relief, CBD can redirect resources from military defense to solve the climate, pandemic and poverty issues. Is CBD not the “new” thinking that Albert Einstein called for?

Civilian-based defense is an old but still new idea. But it will never happen without a strong push from organized social movements.

the book cover of the novel

The Pandemic Within

Strangely, reading Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947) during the pandemic did not depress me (further). Instead, I felt exhilarated. Yes, Camus depicts widespread despair in Oran (Mediterranean city in Algeria) as it undergoes months of quarantine. Fear and unrest rise as bubonic plague kills thousands each month But, as usual with Camus, his ideas are engaging.

Camus has intrigued me since undergraduate days. As a young man, I identified with his defiant attitude in “The Myth of Sisyphus” and L’étranger. Yes, our lives are utterly absurd in the sense of meaningless. But, despite all, including an empty heaven, we live. We may be Sisyphus with his futile unending task of pushing a boulder up a hill. However, we endure, and we can even imagine Sisyphus happy. Why? Because we devise our own meaning.

As an older man re-visiting these works, I found that defiance less satisfying. Perhaps age dulls the sense of possibility. In any case, in The Plague Camus is less defiant, more humble, and distinctly chilling.

The crux of the novel arrives at the beginning, when the narrator (Dr Rieux, as it turns out) observes that people consider themselves free, but “no one will be free as long as there are pestilences.” This observation has both an obvious, and a less obvious, meaning.

Obviously, epidemics and pandemics curb the freedom of everyone. People spend aimless days of high tension, mourn their dead, and are restricted to concentration camps if exposed to the virus. Even so, the experience of the people of Oran is, in some ways, not as dire as ours: people flock to bars, restaurants, cinemas and beaches, despite the contagion. No social distancing there, surprisingly.

People wait to be freed from the pestilence. Religion offers little consolation. Father Paneloux, his own faith in doubt, pleads for people to surrender to “God’s will”, not to question a fate that is all part of His design. Dr Rieux, the good doctor, is unpersuaded. We can count only on ourselves, he thinks. God remains mute in his heaven, in the face of all atrocities. Rieux, the model of an ethical and thoughtful person, acts to heal the afflicted purely out of common decency. That is all one can rely on.

At the less obvious level, the plague represents the propensity within humans for violence and murder. Tarrou, a visitor to Oran of mysterious origins, develops this idea in conversation with Rieux. Other reviewers have represented the plague as  fascism, but I see no evidence for this interpretation. Although the story is deliberately obscure, a youthful Tarrou apparently participated  in a radical left-wing group that assassinated people to advance a Utopian future. He later realizes a bitter truth: not only is killing never justified by any principle, but also, and more unsettling, “we all have the plague, and I have lost my peace.” The virus – the propensity for violence – may remain dormant for a while, but it never disappears. It will become virulent again and the contagion will spread.

So how do we live? Only by being perpetually on guard against the resurgence of the pestilence and taking the side of victims. “While unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilence,” we must “strive our utmost to be healers.”

Are we humans worth saving, if our basic natures are so debased? Yes, says Camus, in a carefully balanced judgment . “There are more things to admire in people than despise.” We hope he is right. We hope to encounter many Dr Rieux, to become Dr Rieux. But one thing is certain; indeed, it is the key lesson. To achieve peace, both in the political and the personal sense, we must be true healers. We must be alert to, and act against, the pandemic within.

Richard Sandbrook is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto and President of Science for Peace Canada.

Image by Random House.

Pursuing a Passion for the Possible

Albert Hirschman’s challenge to social scientists in A Bias for Hope (1971) to embrace a “passion for the possible” has largely been ignored in the mainstream disciplines. That is a pity for, in this age of high anxiety and disaffection, don’t we desperately need perspectives that transcend the limiting confines of liberal democracy and the commodification of everything? Continue reading