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Normative Pacifism and the Necessity of Violence

Pacifism as revolutionary, the peaceful transition to socialism, is an ideology that consistently creeps into anti-capitalist circles.  Although many of us feel that this ghost should have been exorcized long ago––and indeed there are innumerable great works that have been written to do just that––appeals to non-violence as a "moral principle", to Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, or even to seizing power through a parliamentary party continue to linger.  Especially at the centres of capitalism.

Some of the students in a course I'm teaching part-time this summer, for example, truly believe that the anti-racist gains in the US during the 1960s and 1970s were all because of King's non-violent movement. Educated by a discourse that refuses to recognize that an armed movement existed parallel to, as well as eclipsed, King's the non-violent civil rights movement––and that these armed movements were actually the primary reason for any victories against racism––these students believe that non-violence works, is the only "just" way to achieve social change, and are psychologically resistant to other interpretations.  Similarly, we are always taught about the "moral rightness" of Gandhi's struggle in India without any understanding of the other and violent struggles that had already broken British colonial rule, let alone any understanding that there are armed revolutions that have been going in India since British departure.

Weeee! Capitalism is scared of peaceful resistance!

In any case, there are only two significant examples of supposed non-violent "revolutions"; and the truth is that neither of these examples produced anything approaching socialism.  Nor did they even succeed, by themselves, in making radical gains: they were dependent upon the armed revolts of other forces; when successes were gained because of the violence of the oppressed, the retreating oppressors, in an attempt to safe-guard their power from future and more damaging attacks, promoted a story about the morality of non-violence.  A morality promoted at the expense of millions starving each year, crushed beneath the violence of the ruling classes who have worked very hard to teach us that pacifistic resistance––civil disobedience and legal struggle––is the only "ethical" way to change the world.

Several months back I wrote about the universal applicability of Protracted Peoples War [PPW].  I was contrasting PPW with the theory of insurrection (the October Road where insurrection follows a period of protracted legal struggle), which is the only other general revolutionary method I take seriously.  That is, I did not bother contrasting PPW with some nebulous theory of peaceful transition because I do not consider pacifism to possess methodological rigour (it lacks any serious understanding of history) or revolutionary potential (it has not, by itself, produced a revolution let alone a world historical revolution).  Whatever my problems with the theory of insurrection, at least this theory admits that ruling class power needs to be smashed and that this smashing can only, in the end, be accomplished through violence.

This is because those of us who take revolution seriously understand that revolutionary change can only happen when the ruling class and its institutions are smashed and placed under the class rule of the oppressed.  Moreover, we understand that this will never happen if we simply wait for the ruling class to be convinced by our morality and rational arguments.  The class that exists and persists only through the exploitation of those upon whom its existence is predicated will never concede without a violent struggle; they will (and they have) do everything to maintain their power.  They even have, in Lenin's words, "special bodies of armed people" (police and soldiers), along with entire legal and ideological apparati, to ensure that they stay in power.  And when they are challenged, they temporarily abandon the hegemonic wing of consent (the ideological realm where the ruled accept their oppression because they see the ideas of the ruling class as "common sense") and rely on coercion (where the state manifests as police and soldiers to suppress any challenge to ruling class power) to maintain their power.  If a revolution is when the expropriators are expropriated, it isn't very difficult to understand that those who live a pretty good life expropriating others are going to fight tooth and nail to keep things as they are.

Parasites never quit being parasites because they're presented with a good argument.

(As an aside, just a week ago, when I was at a family wedding, I had a chance to speak with my partner's aunt's husband.  Being a former soldier in the Canadian Army––who thankfully quit after observing the reality of Canada's brutal occupation of Afghanistan––he had a very basic and visceral understanding of political power.  After starting a conversation about what I thought of the Quebec Student Strike, he asked "you're a communist, right?"  I replied that I was and asked what he thought about that.  His response was that, back when he was a soldier, he thought communism was wrong but, now that he works in the public sector and is observing the effects of the current economic crisis as well as all of the rebellions springing up around the world, he believes it is probably the only way to go.  But then he told me that he didn't see how all of these chaotic and disorganized uprisings could change anything, especially if and when they were pacifistic.  As a former soldier he understood that the state possessed organized armies and police that could smash any disorganized resistance and that, if there was to be any change, the people needed to have a similar force.  Nor is his perspective anachronistic; the Black Panther movement, for example, was filled with former soldiers returning from Vietnam.  And former soldiers understand, having been part of a force that exists to prosecute ruling class power, resistance cannot be peaceful.)

While it might be true that some of those who advocate violent revolution are doing so for rather macho and masculinist reasons (these are the people, socialized by action movies, who think it is "exciting" rather than horrific to be running around with guns and kung-fu kicking class enemies), those who have thought through the theoretical problem of violence soberly, such as Mao Zedong or Frantz Fanon, generally understand that violence is a tragic necessity.  Obviously, it would be better if the oppressors would just listen to our arguments, say "golly gee you make a good point and you're ethically correct!", and bow to the revolution.  After all, why would anyone want to die fighting for a better society?  Thus, the point is that violence is a factual necessity for revolution and factual necessities shouldn't be celebrated––they just are.  We do not doubt that violent revolutions are tragic and that they have haunted post-revolutionary orders; but this violence is far less tragic than the violent nightmare of everyday existence under capitalism, and it will haunt us less than the bourgeois ideology that lingers after a revolution.

But there is still that claim, common amongst those who argue for a peaceful tradition, that the "immorality" of violence is the main reason why revolutions fail.  Revolutions eat their children, we are told, because they produce violent people and this violence is internalized.  And though we cannot ignore the fact that there might be some truth to this claim, we also need to realize that this is a simplistic and ahistorical explanation for revolutionary failure.  Not only is violence a tragic necessity, its post-revolutionary internalization is not the reason why revolutions have failed.  Revolutions have failed primarily because class struggle continues under socialism, bourgeois ideology lingers, and sometimes bourgeois factions attempt to restore––also violently on their part––the previous state of affairs.  The bigger problem is figuring out how to succeed in encouraging the past mode of production's ideology to wither away; it is not the violence of the children of the revolution that is the problem, but the fact that these children were socialized under the previous mode of production.

Furthermore, those who imagine that the only "moral" strategy of social change is non-violence are generally unwilling to investigate why the bourgeois revolution(s) succeeded in establishing capitalism. Aside from shedding tears about the French Terrors, they really do not understand that the guillotining of the French aristocracy––as well as all of the violent revolutions that spread throughout Europe and succeeded in placing the former ruling class under the dictatorship of the rising bourgeoisie––are the only reason that those of us who live in capitalist modes of production aren't beholden to divine right and the Great Chain of Being.  Really, are we still haunted by a moment in history when a bunch of vicious aristocrats were made to pay for centuries of oppression?  And if the pacifist would like to claim that, yes, we are still haunted by historical moments like the French Revolution, then how far back does this haunting go: are we haunted by every act of historical violence, stretching back to primordial times, is this some sort of "original sin" we can never escape and, if so, then why bother imagining we can break this infinite chain of violence by practicing pacifism now?  Better to simply concede to some Hobbesian state of nature and let things take their course…

Whatever the case, I have always been interested in how the psychology of the proponent of non-violence creeps into the broader leftwing movement.  Everyone who seeks to be respectable (as I discussed in the previous post about the concept of the lumpenproletariat) also seeks to abide by rules of pacifism––regardless of how much they celebrate past violent revolutions.  Those who cringe at militancy, who argue that we need to take the "moral high-ground" or that direct action "harms the people" (this is not to say, I should point out here, that there are some acts of militant adventurism that might indeed harm the interests of the masses), who push for a "diversity of tactics" when they really mean "diversity of strategy"––these are all symptoms of this desire for a peaceful transition to socialism.  Thus, this pacifism is another symptom of petty bourgeois ideology that affects all of us at the centres of capitalism, where a default opportunism (because of the labour aristocracy) is often normative.

The continuous emergence of self-righteous pacifism at the imperial centres, then, should not be surprising.  Considering the ideological state of these ruling territories of world capitalism, it makes sense that those who have lived their life in comfort will choose a comfortable form of resistance against their ruling class.  Just as it makes sense that this ideology of comfortable resistance will affect even those who, theoretically, reject pacifism.  And so, just as we at the centres of capitalism need to be attentive to all forms of default opportunism, we also need to be attentive to how we have been pacified into pacifism.

None of this is to say that non-violent resistance cannot, sometimes, be a useful tactic––at points it might produce a media spectacle, drawing attention to the normative terror of the state.  But we need to reject pacifism as a strategy, along with its ahistorical moralism, as well as be critical of how it is part of a normative discourse promoted by the state.


  1. My least favorite example of "normative pacifism" is the radical poser who uses revolutionary theory and history as a quote mine to support their own decidedly non-radical politics - I had a so-called Marxist professor who cited Lenin's statement about "Communism springing from every pore of capitalist society" to justify his gradualist fixation on "building socialism without violence" through legal and trade union work and his belief that questions of armed struggle or state power were "outdated" because if you could build a socialist economic base through legal means, actual class struggle becomes unnecessary. Obviously flying in the face of just about everything else Lenin ever said and did! It's this weird strain of pseudo-Marxism that throws together liberal pacifism, social democracy, and 2nd International/Stalinist economism while cloaking itself in a veneer of revolutionary phrasing and imagery, truly a bourgeois ideology if there ever was one. Maybe we can call this phenomenon "quoting Lenin to defeat Lenin".

  2. This was a very enlightening article, thank you. I can definitely see how the assumption that revolution must be non-violent is kind of the built-in default, reinforced by teaching biased history. I've found it interesting that classrooms in the US spend so much time on MLK and Gandhi, but practically none on the Black Panthers or Malcolm X or anyone else advocating something slightly more violent (other than a brief acknowledgement of their existence). I can see that the capitalist system can literally disarm ideologies which threaten the ruling class - make citizens believe that bearing arms against the system is necessarily immoral.

    Now I'm just someone interested in communism, not a communist - I'm not yet convinced of the necessity of revolution. But lets suppose that we do need a revolution. I'm on the fence about whether it should be violent or peaceful. I recognize that the peaceful route is the default one for me, which has been ingrained by my education and upbringing. But that doesn't necessarily mean it is the wrong approach.

    Lets take the Civil Rights movement for example. No, this did not achieve socialism, but it did achieve a vast shift in collective consciousness. Was this shift more due to the violence of groups such as the Black Panthers, or the non-violence of King? You assert the former, but I'm not sure. The Black Panthers didn't actually take over anything - couldn't you say their aims were not achieved? At best, they succeeded in implanting the *fear* of violent revolution in the collective consciousness. One could argue that it was this fear which effectively caused the shift against racism. But couldn't one argue that uplifting inspiration of King was much more important? Yes, it sounds cheesy and Disney-like that an "I have a dream" speech could have so much impact, but this is plausible to me. Is it perhaps ideological bias that you leap the conclusion that violent Civil Rights groups were more effective? Or is this something clearly evident from studying the history of the era/movement?

    What if pacifism is ultimately more effective than violent revolution, because of its capacity to inspire? By trying to violently attack the system, you make it much easier for people to demonize you as terrorists. But by utilizing nonviolent tactics, it is impossible for the oppressors to successfully portray you as terrorists, and people are more likely to join your cause. Mainstream white America could not identify with Malcolm X or the Black Panthers. They were afraid of them, but not swayed by them. But King's nonviolent protests directly communicated with White America. Unable to dismiss their protests as the actions of terrorists, they were forced to see black people as actual human beings. I think this is the likely explanation for the shift in racial consciousness that has occurred in the US since the 1960's.

    It may be though, that pacifism was the best technique for the problem of racism in the US, but it is not necessarily the best way to achieve socialist victory. People and institutions could become less racist through taking action within the confines of the capitalist system. But the capitalist system cannot become un-capitalist within the confines of itself.

    1. 1) The Civil Rights movement was more than King and in the South it was a warzone. This wasn't the Black Panthers, but armed and organized community defence groups whose organization made it possible for King to have the autonomy he had. [Authors such as James Yaki Sayles, the late civil rights political prisoner, have spoken a lot about this.] There has been a lot written on this; moreover, King began to recognize this fact in the latter half of his life when he moved towards an anti-imperialist position––a part of his life that has generally been ignored.

      2) Pacifism as a tactic might be useful in some contexts, but it lacks an strategic strength for changing modes of production. I am not sure, though, if pacifism was even "the best technique" for the problem of racism in the US because, well, white supremacy is still alive and well in the US. Although, yes, the political rights gained through the Civil Rights movement are gains, they still did not emerge by smashing white supremacy. And...

      3) It is doubtful that political rights were afforded to black americans because white america saw them as "human beings". More likely, as so many historians have indicated, these rights were permitted for the same reason that there was a historic concession between labour and capital: to pacify a movement that was demanding far more than it was given, especially in the context of the cold war where the Soviet Union and China were pointing out that America's claims about "freedom" were a joke if it was a racist state. Kennedy was heavily invested in Civil Rights for this very reason.


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