Accepted paper:

Pacifist utopias: British conscientious objectors in the second world war

Author:

Tobias Kelly (University of Edinburgh)

Paper short abstract:

Pacifism is often seen as a utopian commitment. Yet, pacifists face a problem of how to bring their utopian optimism into being. Focusing on Second World War Britain, this paper explores how pacifists sough to overcome the temporal fissure of pacifism, by collapsing means and ends.

Paper long abstract:

Pacifism is often seen as a utopian commitment. It is based on the assumption that human beings are perfectible and contain within themselves the capacity to live better, more peaceful lives. Yet, pacifists face a problem of how to bring their utopian optimism into being. Put bluntly, what happens if future peace can only achieved through violence in the present. Or, alternatively, what happens if a commitment to pacifist principles in the here and now results in the death of other people, in the name of a future peace that was yet to come? Focusing on Second World War Britain, this paper explores how pacifists sough to overcome the temporal fissure of pacifism, by collapsing means and ends. For such people, pacifism could be built through small-scale social interaction, exemplified by communal farms. As war spread around the globe, pacifists continued to be optimistic, not despite of all the bloodshed all around them, but because of it. It was the difficulties of pacifism that proved its importance. Empirical reality or utilitarian calculation could not be used to undermine this optimism. Above all, COs tried to create a pacifist sociality through a form of self-sacrifice. However, such sacrifices were constantly on the verge of turning from the productive to the destructive, the peaceful to the violent.

panel P04
Architects of utopia