David Dellinger: The Life and Times of a Nonviolent Revolutionary

Revolutionary Nonviolence and the Critiquing of David Dellinger

David Dellinger:
The Life and Times of a Nonviolent Revolutionary

By Andrew E. Hunt
2006, New York University Press;
346 pages. $34.95, hardcover

As catchphrases go, "revolutionary nonviolence" has not exactly caught the imagination of many activists. Full of rhetoric and apparently contradictory meanings, those two words balanced against one another appear to confuse as many people as they inspire. Nevertheless, they were favorites of lifelong radical pacifist Dave Dellinger, who not only used the phrase as the title of his first major book, but also saw in them the best definition of his often-criticized politics. With the just-released biography, David Dellinger: The Life and Times of a Nonviolent Revolutionary, the progressive movement is offered another opportunity to understand this sometimes complicated man and his vision. However, despite author Andrew E. Hunt's substantial research, the book is fraught with 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 88, citing supporters and critics alike about the remarkable life he led. In a style that is characteristic of the entire volume, Hunt quotes from mainstream-often conservative-sources, as well as from various movement friends and associates. But the flat reporting of the views of Dellinger's critics implies 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 called Dellinger a "self indulgent … oxymoronic militant pacifist." Most significant is the fact that Hunt centers around the idea that Dellinger lived a life 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 is 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. The reader learns about his mentors as an undergraduate student at Yale, tantalizing tidbits about his trips to war-torn Spain and Germany in the late 1930s. Intense stories of Dave's first hunger strikes and placement in solitary confinement, protesting segregation and censorship as a WWII conscientious objector imprisoned at Lewisburg Penitentiary, fill the early chapters.

What is lacking amid 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 CO 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 WWII 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 is to Dellinger's own thinking on the matter.

Throughout Hunt's appraisal of the sixties, the movement is constantly in decline, with Dellinger looking foolish and weak and playing into his enemies' hands. The context of what is happening on the streets of the United States, on predominantly white college campuses, or in predominantly Black inner-city communities is noticeably missing, as is any description of the devastation of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. It isn't surprising that Hunt cites Nixon's round-the-clock bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong-not the antiwar actions, not the refusal of U.S. soldiers to fight, not the resistance of the population of Vietnam-as the primary factor that led to the war's end.

Certainly biographers are not required to admire or agree with their subjects. Yet what is 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.

Dave's emphasis on the importance of work supporting U.S. political prisoners, with particular concern for American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier, is mentioned in one sentence; his antinuclear work is minimized to one paragraph. Dellinger's continuous work in solidarity with Vietnam, coupled with his growing support of the movements in Central America and Puerto Rico, are 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 subject, for those looking for a single volume on Dellinger, I recommend searching the used-book bins of your local store or the Internet, to find 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 new editions-complete with a critical but fair assessment of Dellinger's work added as an introduction or afterword-have yet to make it to market.

Matt Meyer

Matt Meyer, New York City activist-educator, is founding Co-Chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Organization and co-author (with Bill Sutherland) of Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation. A longtime member of WRL’s National Committee, he was a public draft-registration resister in the 1980s and served as WRL’s Chair. He is author, editor, or contributor to nine other books, including the 2012 WRL co-publication We Have Not Been Moved: Resisting Racism and Militarism in 21st Century America.