V is for Violence

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I would guess that most socialists are instinctively anti-violence. We hate almost all of its manifestations from war all the way through to bullying. Many of us came to socialist politics via anti-war movements or struggles against various forms of oppression.

Yet, as any readers of this magazine will know, its editorial line is one that supports the revolutionary transformation of society, which looks to events like the French and Russian Revolutions and inspirational movements in human history.

Furthermore, Socialist Review has supported many struggles for national liberation - struggles that usually involve armed resistance.

Is this not a contradiction?

We would argue not. Violence cannot just be judged in the abstract. It must be examined in a concrete context. Capitalism is in most of its manifestations a violent system. It enriches those who own and control wealth by exploiting those who actually produce that wealth. It builds massive forces armed to the teeth in order to ensure its continued existence. It wages wars, crushes resistance, tortures, maims, kills, and develops weapons that could destroy humankind.

In the process it brutalises some of those it controls. Horrific violent crimes and apparently random acts of violence often have their roots in the distorted values of capitalism and the deprivation it throws up.

At times the system even encourages one section of the population to turn brutally on another. It fosters hostility where none has any rational right to exist: colour of skin, nationality, religion, sexuality and gender have all been used at times to turn people on one another rather than on those who exploit or oppress them.

What is worse is that all this is done with breathtaking hypocrisy. Our leaders, politicians and media rant and rave against this or that act of violence, crime or terrorism, while at the same time perpetrating or supporting acts of violence on a scale those they condemn couldn't even begin to dream about.

They are able to do so because capitalism maintains its rule through a combination of force and fraud. The fraud is largely based on making their worldview seem the only rational, "common sense" one.

Violence imposed by the state is seen as legitimate, while violence against that state is deemed illegitimate.

Just look at the coverage of Israel/Palestine. While there may be "regret" at some of Israel's actions, nevertheless there is an underlying message: these are legitimate guys; they have a democratic parliament; they wear uniforms; they use conventional weapons and methods - they have "the right to defend themselves".

The Palestinians? They represent a grubby non-state; they look like terrorists; their methods are those of resistance movements, not conventional armies; they are part of the "terrorist world we are all meant to be at war with".

So you are not invited to understand the breathtaking injustice and indignity the Palestinians suffer, just to understand that one side is "legal and legitimate" and the other isn't.

Nelson Mandela may be the politician most people would like to cuddle today, but it wasn't that long ago that the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan felt much closer to South Africa's racist rulers than to the "terrorist" ANC leader. Yet was Mandela right to fight? Do the Palestinians have a right to resist? Was the Provisional IRA's armed struggle legitimate?

In all three cases the answer has to be yes. This does not mean an endorsement of particular actions or tactics, or indeed of the strategy involved, but it is a recognition of the right to resist oppression and exploitation, and a denial of the right of the state to monopolise weaponry and force.

This is very important for socialists. Throughout our political lives most of us will have marched alongside pacifists, campaigned with them and shared many of their aims. Equally we have admired the often heroic history of pacifist resistance. The refusal to serve, the refusal to fight and the refusal to kill have often come at enormous cost.

Unlike the capitalist politicians and newspapers, pacifists are not hypocrites; they are consistent in their beliefs. So we revolutionary socialists admire and respect them while fundamentally disagreeing with them. We see a profound difference between the violence inflicted by a slave holder and the violence a slave might employ to free himself or herself from slavery.

Throughout history most profound change has come about through the resistance of the oppressed, who have been unwilling to accept their lot any more and have overthrown the existing order or rulers. Frequently that resistance has been violent, because that was the only way to wrench power from the oppressors.

Today we live in a world where huge arsenals of weapons are held so that the rich and powerful within states can control the poor and exploited; so that the biggest and richest states can keep the smaller and poorer states in line; so that wealth and the continuation of capitalism can be ensured. These are not people or systems you can vote away. They will never surrender their power, wealth or privilege to a popular vote. Ultimately they will have to be overthrown. That overthrow will involve violence.

There will be a difference though, and a crucial one. The use and threat of violence is intrinsic to capitalism. That is because there is a privileged minority attempting to hold on to its wealth and power against the interests of the vast majority. It will resort to the most brutal methods to impose its will.

In contrast a socialist revolution is the majority freeing itself from exploitation and oppression. When a revolutionary movement of the masses imposes its will on the minority it has no need for brutality. Its aim is to liberate and cleanse the world not just of the huge violence of wars and weapons of mass destruction, but of the daily violence that human beings inflict on one another as they lash out in their misery and alienation.

Once we have removed the horrors of capitalism, we can all enjoy living in a pacifist world.

Pat Stack


Further reading:

Terrorism and Communism by Trotsky; State and Revolution by Lenin. Both can be ordered through Bookmarks.