Opening this academic year’s Political Theory Research Group on 20 September, we had the pleasure to discuss Mathias Thaler’s paper Peace as a Minor, Grounded Utopia: On Prefigurative and Testimonial Pacifism. Here, Thaler utilises the distinction between two types of utopias, minor and major, to advance a (minor) utopian argument for pacifism. According to how Just War Theory, the most influential strand of the ethics of violence, understands pacifism, it is variably immoral, inconsistent, and impractical. Thaler draws on two examples, radical US postwar pacifism and Amnesty International, to show how minor, grounded utopias can be politically powerful. Both of these show that pacifism is not simply a means-oriented strategy. Therefore, we should not judge the success of pacifism along the lines of its short-term, practical political impact, but in how it can envisage and embody alternative worlds. These worlds are not fully detached and wholly imaginary: utopias are always formed from existing social structures and situations.
It is straightforward to claim that pacifist movements and their philosophy are bereft with empirical and theoretical failures beyond redemption. What Thaler’s paper shows, in contrast, is that a more nuanced consideration does not need to face these claims head-on, but can reformulate the terms of the debate. By considering pacifism and its associated movements as forms of prefigured and testimonial utopias, long-standing debates (if not stalemates) on pacifism can be rejuvenated and re-evaluated.
In the ensuing discussion, which was productive and constructive, questions were brought up about the dichotomy between minor and major utopias, and whether minor utopias really qualify as utopian, and the strength of thinking of utopias dichotomously versus on a continuum. Thaler pointed to a large literature in utopian studies which the paper deliberately avoided in order to gain broader appeal beyond the specialist scholarship. Discussion centred further on the relationship between pacifism and Just War Theory, including the extent to which the former can be coopted into the latter.
Written by Lukas Slothuus
Mathias Thaler is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Edinburgh.