Pacifist utopias

Humanitarianism, tragedy and complicity in the Second World War

in Social Anthropology/Anthropologie sociale
Tobias Kelly University of Edinburgh

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In war, the utopian and the dystopian converge. What could be more dystopian than a world of endless violence, and what more utopian than perpetual peace? Yet, at the same time, utopianism has itself been accused of brutality, and those who are opposed to war charged with perpetuating dystopian bloodshed. This paper examines the relationship between war, peace and utopia, by focusing on the ethical conflicts of opposing violence. It does so through the particular example of humanitarianism. Contemporary humanitarianism seeks to oppose the violence of war, but does so by placing limits on war rather than abolishing it, and is therefore often seen as complicit with violence. For many humanitarians, the response to this complicity has been a widespread sense of ethical crisis. In contrast, this paper examines a particular utopian humanitarian tradition, in the shape of British pacifist ambulance workers in the Second World War. This is a form of humanitarianism that recognises complicity, but also retains a utopian commitment to human perfection. The central argument of this paper is that the ethical conflicts of humanitarianism need to be put back into the diverse visions of the human that have run through humanitarian histories.

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