On Political Violence: An Essay by Craig Rosebraugh
Burning Rage of a Dying Planet: Speaking for The Earth Liberation Front
This article was posted by the Alternative Press on September 01, 2004
The topic of methodologies of social change is virtually a timeless matter of international interest. The means by which progress can best be achieved has been debated for years and will no doubt continue to be discussed and argued over as long as the imperfection of societies is a reality. On one side of this argument sits proponents of nonviolence, ranging from those proclaiming a strict adherence to others who at least on a minimal basis understand and practice the principles. In this category there are ample volumes of literary work dedicated to explaining the rationale, the justification on a moral and philosophical level, for engaging in nonviolent social struggle.
However, on the other side of the fence, the opposing argument is against following a strict adherence to nonviolence. While few scholars, theorists, and outright revolutionaries openly declare their love and desire for armed struggle on any level, many do promote the right to self defense which can and often does include the use of political violence. On a sociological and psychological level, there is a wealth of resources attempting to understand the mindset of the group or individual who takes up arms and violence for reasons of pursuing justice. Additionally, on a purely tactical basis, from guerrilla warfare to massive armed insurrection involving full conventional militaries, there is also a substantial amount of literature. Yet, to the direct counter of the nonviolent theorist who maintains the means verses ends argument, there is little in the way of explanation from a rational standpoint of why one takes up arms.
In this chapter I intend to discuss the strategy of political violence, particularly the tactical, moral, and philosophical justifications for the use of armed force in attempting to create a just world. It will most likely be helpful to first run through a couple of definitions. To begin, violence is often defined in varying terms. For this purpose, it is defined here as that which physically harms humans. Regardless of my personal beliefs, and the bulk of information supporting the notion that violence can also be psychological as well as against any life form (other animals, the natural environment), the above simplistic definition will suffice.
Political violence therefore can be defined as actions taken for political purposes which harm humans. This explanation may well include violence committed by nation states against other nation states (such as the United States against Afghanistan, Iraq and many others in recent history), violence taken by nation states against international non-domestic populations (such as the United States military action against Al Qaida), action by nation states against their own population (Mexican government against Zapatistas, United States against Natives, African Americans, etc.), domestic groups against nation states (Weathermen against United States government, Angry Brigade against English government, etc.), domestic groups against one another (groups targeting industry and commerce, such as the Earth Liberation Front in contemporary times), all the way to the individual level with persons taking action against one another, populations, groups, and governments. Under this broad definition, political violence incorporates many varied opportunities and there are numerous examples of each type throughout recent history. For this particular paper, however, I would like to concentrate on the individual and group level, those who for one reason or many decide to use violence as a means for achieving justice and positive social change.
The reasoning for the use of violence can be divided into at least two separate schools of thought. The first revolves around the idea that violence in some way is a natural reaction to various situations, especially those that are life threatening. For instance, when an oppressive government comes down upon a specific sector of a population, perhaps targeting them for annihilation (as in the case of Nazi Germany), that population often times will react in a violent nature, in a matter of self defense. While the overwhelming majority of Jews targeted by the Nazis did not react violently, a minimal proportion did throughout the implementation of the Nazi’s Final Solution. Another example can be found by looking at the Algerian Revolution. Moslem Algerians took up arms to fight the French only after it was evident that their very existence was at stake. The most extreme example illustrating this point occurs when an individual, targeted for assassination by a government, fights back with violence just prior to the execution. In these situations the decision to use violence as a means is not so much a well thought out, conscious, and deliberate one, as it is a matter of necessity, of urgency, and last resort.
In his essay "Let My People Go," printed in When All Else Fails: Christian Arguments on Violent Revolution, Duclos states:
The violence of the poor is a violence that has been imposed on them, a violence that is necessary. He knows very well that the poor are the first and worst sufferers from violence, because the order of the powerful never hesitates to augment its violence when the “little ones” lift their heads. The violence of the poor is sacrificial. They spill their blood for a common liberation from injustice, for love of their fellows. It is a resistance of the spirit, an explosion of their dignity that has been left no other means for expressing itself. All ways of human expression have been closed to them, every dialogue refused, no attention has been paid to their painful and patient complaints. Nothing remains to them other than organized refusal, the deliberate will to die rather than continue living in slow motion (IDOC, 1970, p. 221).
In these particular cases, as Duclos explains, when a disgruntled sector of the population is attacked and left no other recourse, the violent reaction that results often stems from a last ditch attempt to fight to the death to uphold the given principles.
This particular category also encompasses those who engage in political violence purely as a means of self-defense. In these instances there is often not the time, ability or luxury of debating what tactics are morally justifiable. Instead, the targeted individual, group, or population is in such a desperate struggle for survival they, without contemplation, use whatever means they have available. A by-any-means necessary approach, if you will. Examples of this can be seen within the few cases in Nazi-occupied Europe when Jews on their way to the gas chambers would revolt and, in an effort to save their own lives, attack guards.
The second area of thought on individual and small group political violence focuses on those who actually plan, strategize, and engage in violence out of a belief in its necessity for change. For this grouping the actuality of the committed act of violence is far moreso premeditated than spontaneous. Additionally, whereas the former group of discussion largely takes on a reactionary role of self defense and rarely engages in proactive violence, this latter category does indeed not only use the tactic as a matter of defense but also in offensive actions.
Resources pertaining to the first school of thought are fairly abundant, with many theorists attempting to prove or disprove the notion that violence is a natural reaction, and others attempting to explain why in sociological or psychological terms the violent reaction occurs. Yet, in the second category, that of organized and premeditated political violence, written material is somewhat scarce. While both schools of thought should be of interest to anyone concerned with the subject of political violence, my primary investigative leaning is toward the latter grouping.
Political violence has, as a matter of documented fact, been with humanity throughout its history. Davies, in his 1971 book, When Men Revolt and Why, argues that:
Violence among citizens, of which revolution is the most extreme sort, probably goes as far back (as) in the history of government. . . . Indeed it may be argued that violence of citizen against citizen, government against citizen, and citizen against government has always come before orderly political processes (p. 3).
While this does not constitute a sound basis on its own for the continuance of political violence, there is an abundance of information to be gained by acknowledging and understanding its historic role. Some do however argue that humankind, with all its alleged intelligence and progress, should have found an alternative to violence by now, if there were a more viable alternative available. In his 1980 book, The Riddle of Violence, Kaunda states, “Man has suffered so greatly in wars throughout recorded time it must be assumed that if there were a more efficient way of achieving whatever end war serves, he would have found and applied it years ago” (p. 81).
Of the available material discussing possible motives and factors provoking a violent pursuit of political goals, a common belief among theorists is that a state of frustration, deprivation, repression, and oppression is often present. In an essay entitled "Social Change and Political Violence: Cross National Patterns" contained within Anger, Violence and Politics: Theories and Research, the authors argue that “our theoretical assumption linking change to violence begins with the notion that political turmoil is the consequence of social discontent” (Feierabend et al, 1972, p. 108). They continue on to suggest that frustration can be defined as:
the thwarting at or interference with the attainment of goals, aspirations, or expectations. On the basis of frustration-aggression theory, it is postulated that frustration induced by the social system creates the social strain and discontent that in turn are the indispensable preconditions of violence (p. 108).
Some, such as Fanon and Duclos, go as far as to suggest that the act of violence in itself allows the practicer to regain his/her dignity and sense of worth. In one of his most renown works, The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon states, “at the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect” (1963, p. 94). Duclos adds “to die in refusal, in revolt, seems like the first gesture of the rebirth of oppressed man. For him it will be the assertion of his existence, of his consciousness of being human, a consciousness that refuses to let itself be alienated by other men” (1970, p. 221).
The above stated hypotheses of causes of political violence are quite simplistic and one might say obvious. It seems like common knowledge that in the mind of someone committing political violence, they feel they have been neglected or wronged in some way by their opposition. In many cases this may be completely true. But why then do some choose to engage in political violence while others, perhaps under a similar set of circumstances, follow a less violent or even nonviolent path?
The answer is not easily found. One realistic and grounded analysis differentiates between the various circumstances premeditating the outbreak of political violence. Like those Jews in the holocaust who rebelled on the way to their execution, there is a higher likelihood of violence being used when the applicant(s) perceives they are in a direct and immediate struggle for their life. In other situations, when those who have a feeling of being wronged are not (or do not feel as though they are) in a desperate and immediate battle for their lives, there often is more time for contemplation, for analyzing and discussing the proper strategies by which to proceed. In some of these cases, the decision might then be made to engage in less violent, or nonviolent tactics. Arguably, whether those in this particular situation would admit it or not, the decision to follow a path less violent may likely depend of the amount of personal safety, and even privilege, that is perceived at a given time.
The next logical question that should be contemplated is why then do those who may not be in an immediate and desperate position of protecting themselves choose to resort to violence as a means of addressing their grievances? This question is problematic for at least two reasons. First, the notion of an immediate and desperate position of protecting one’s life is very relative. Any number of people may perceive the threats to one’s life in varying degrees of seriousness. A man involved in the drug trade, for instance, who learns there is a contract out on his life, knows full well that he is in a desperate and immediate situation. But often times the issue is much fuzzier. Members of the Earth Liberation Front have stated in their communiqués that protecting the environment is a matter of self defense. They feel that the threat to the natural world is so severe, desperate, and immediate that they engage in actions of sabotage to try and protect what they see as all life on the planet. Likewise, Dr. Ted Kazcinski, also referred to as the Unabomber, conducted a multi-year campaign of violence against what he saw as a technological world threatening all life. As the above examples demonstrate, there often times is a considerable discrepancy between what constitutes the notions of desperate and immediate.
A second problem with the question of why one chooses to resort to violence is that in many instances, the parties involved do not feel as though they are choosing. Instead, more often than not, the applicators of political violence feel as though they have no choice, they were left no other option but to resort to some sort of armed struggle. Nelson Mandela who led the armed wing of the African National Congress during South Africa’s freedom fight stated:
The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only to choices: submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means within our power in defence of our people, our future and our freedom (Mandela, 1986, p. 122).
Mandela called for the addition of violent tactics to be used in the liberation struggle in 1961 after “a long and anxious assessment of the South Africa situation” (Mandela, 1986, p. 166). He goes on to better describe the decision:
This conclusion was not easily arrived at. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle, and to form Umkhonto we Sizwe. We did so not because we desired such a course, but solely because the government had left us with no other choice (p. 166).
This lack-of-choice justification is perhaps the most common reason given by individuals and groups who use political violence to further their own agendas. On a basic level of progression the argument makes sense—if tactics a, b, and c do not work on their own you either give up and submit or take things to the next level. For many who have first attempted more nonviolent and state sanctioned pursuits, they feel there is no other recourse left but to step up the pressure.
It can be said that the Black Power movement in the United States came about, at least in part, due to the observation by many African Americans that nonviolent tactics on their own were not succeeding in advancing civil rights. In a 1965 interview that appeared in the Young Socialist, Malcolm X stated:
I don’t favor violence. If we could bring about recognition and respect of our people by peaceful means, well and good. Everybody would like to reach his objectives peacefully. But I am also a realist. . . . I believe we should protect ourselves by any means necessary when we are attacked by racists (X, 1965, p.17).
A decade before Malcolm was to come into the heavy limelight, Robert Williams was arguing the need for blacks to arm themselves in self defense, to pick up where the law was lacking. In the late 1950s, Williams was the president of the Monroe, North Carolina branch of the NAACP. There he proclaimed:
Rather than submit to violence, Negroes must be willing to defend themselves, their women, their children and their homes. Nowhere in the annals of history does the record show a people delivered from bondage by patience alone (Tyson, 1999, p. 215).
Williams also practiced what he preached. He and a number of his followers used machine guns, dynamite, and Molotov cocktails to confront the Klu Klux Klan.
The formation of the Young Lords Party in the 1960s also revealed a frustration that came as a result of attempting various nonviolent tactics. A U.S.-based organization advocating for human rights, particularly for Puerto Ricans and Latinos, the Young Lords stated in their 13-point program:
We are opposed to violence—the violence of hungry children, illiterate adults, diseased old people, and the violence of poverty and profit. We have asked, petitioned, gone to courts, demonstrated peacefully, and voted for politicians full of empty promises. But still we ain’t free. The time has come to defend the lives of our people against repression and for revolutionary war against the businessman, politician and police. When a government oppresses our people, we have the right to abolish it and create a new one.
Again, the recurring theme is displayed here of those who argue they have attempted less severe and nonviolent tactics but they simply did not work.
The above statement brings up two interesting points. The argument that nonviolent tactics did not work can simply be met by questioning the strategy of the implemented activities as well as the timeline on which they occurred. Criticisms from the nonviolence sector can easily be imagined that relate to the violent offender not giving nonviolent tactics enough time to work. But in the mind of the proponent of political violence, it is commonly argued that they feel that their own personal time limit set for less severe tactics expired.
The question, how long is one supposed to wait to see if a particular tactic is going to be effective, is an important one but is also relative to each situation. For example, middle class citizens of the United States, of the leftist or liberal persuasion, arguably have far more time to debate tactics and experiment with strategies on general progressive “issues” than say a member of the PLO, who rightfully believes that Palestinians are in an immediate and desperate struggle for their lives and sovereignty against Israel. Thus, to reiterate, the perception of the urgency and severity of the threat to one’s life plays a definite role in deciding how able they are to argue for and take part in an adherence to nonviolent principles.
The second point which the above statement highlights is why nonviolence did not work, at least for those who argue for the necessity of political violence. While attempting to refrain from the full debate between nonviolence and political violence, I do think it is important to understand the rationale of those advocating the latter. (This is especially a necessity as I have already covered the arguments by nonviolence proponents in earlier works).
There is a belief held by many proponents of political violence that nonviolence can only work when the opposition has the capability of decency, compassion, and a necessary healthy and working conscience. Nonviolence philosophies, as preached by Gandhi and King, assume that an oppressive agent in any and every case has the ability to see the evils in his/her own actions and voluntarily change. Critics argue that, while nonviolence relies upon these key factors, not every opponent or agent of oppression has this capability.
T. Melville, in his essay "The Present State of the Church in Latin America," wrote:
The revolution can only be peaceful when those who control the structures—the rich oligarchy—are willing to allow such a change to occur, recognizing the long-denied rights of the poor masses. To the degree that they oppose such a change, the masses will be forced to use ever more drastic measures, to take power into their own hands and thus effect change by themselves. It is the rich then, with those of allied interests, who have the real say as to whether the process will be peaceful or violent (IDOC, 1970, p. 217).
Rejecting even the slightest notion that nonviolence could actually play a part in revolution as they saw it, the Angry Brigade in England conducted a multi-year bombing and sabotage campaign. Advocating the overthrow of the capitalist system by the working class, the Angry Brigade was primarily active in the early 1970s. On February 19, 1971, their sixth communiqué was printed in The Times [of London]. It stated:
FELLOW REVOLUTIONARIES... We have sat quietly and suffered the violence of the system for too long. We are being attacked daily. Violence does not only exist in the army, the police and prisons. It exists in the shoddy alienating culture pushed out by TV films and magazines, it exists in the ugly sterility of urban life. It exists in the daily exploitation of our Labour, which gives big Bosses the power to control our lives and run the system for their own ends. How many Rolls Royces. . . how many Northern Irelands. . . how many anti-Trade Union bills will it take to demonstrate that in a crisis of capitalism the ruling class can only react by attacking the people politically? But the system will never collapse or capitulate by itself. More and more workers now realise this and are transforming union consciousness into offensive political militancy. In one week, one million workers were on strike. . . Fords, Post Office, BEA, oil delivery workers. . . . Our role is to deepen the political contradictions at every level. We will not achieve this by concentrating on ‘issues’ or by using watered down socialist platitudes. In Northern Ireland the British Army and its minions has found a practising range: the CS gas and bullets in Belfast will be in Derby and Dagenham tomorrow.
OUR attack is violent. . . . Our violence is organised.
This communiqué contains some of the classic factors common in the mindset of those conducting or advocating political violence. There is the reality of frustration in their statements referring to them being faced with years of violence and lower class, poverty conditions. Also present is the vocal abandonment of any hope that nonviolent tactics could be successfully utilized.
The question is not whether the revolution will be violent. Organised militant struggle and organised terrorism go side by side. These are the tactics of the revolutionary class movement. Where two or three revolutionaries use organised violence to attack the class system . . . there is the Angry Brigade. Revolutionaries all over England are already using the name to publicise their attacks on the system. No Revolution was ever won without violence. Just as the structures and programmes of a new revolutionary society must be incorporated into every organised base at every point in the struggle, so must organised violence accompany every point of the struggle until, armed the revolutionary working class overthrows the capitalist system. COMMUNIQUÉ 6. THE ANGRY BRIGADE (Vague, 1997, p. 42).
Across the Atlantic, in the United States during roughly the same time period, the Weather Underground was calling for a massive armed revolutionary movement against U.S. imperialism. In their 1974 book, Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism, the group also demonstrated their lack of faith in the nonviolent struggle. They wrote:
It is an illusion that imperialism will decay peacefully. Imperialism has meant constant war. Imperialists defend their control of the means of life with terrible force. There is no reason to believe they will become humane or relinquish power. As matters deteriorate for imperialism, there is every reason to believe they will tighten control, pass their contradictions on to the people, and struggle for every last bit of power. To not prepare the people for this struggle is to disarm them ideologically and physically and to perpetuate a cruel hoax (p. 3).
The question over whether or not certain opponents are able to have their own behaviors formulated by nonviolence is definitely crucial. There is some validity to the opinion which states that not everyone has this capability. For instance, it can be argued that a healthy, working conscience would not allow someone to be involved in overt, oppressive and even outright murderous practices. Their own sense of goodness and decency, two components which should be present within any working conscience, would hypothetically prevent them from doing so. Therefore, in certain circumstances, one who is involved in such overt and obvious activities could be perceived as not having that conscience required for theories of nonviolence to succeed.
The executives, whose factories pump out extreme amounts of toxins into the environment, must be aware of the pollutants and their adverse health effects to humans and other life forms. In some cases, the factories will knowingly continue to release this poison simply because it is more cost efficient than pursuing less unhealthy business. Likewise, it has been a matter of simple knowledge within the environmental advocacy community that many corporations have in the past and still today choose to dump gallons and gallons of toxic waste into the ocean rather than disposing of it properly. In many of these situations, the decision is based purely on finances. For larger corporations, it often times is cheaper for them to pay the measly governmental fines and continue dumping their poisons than to take the necessary measures for safe and proper disposal.
In the above examples, it is debatable whether or not the parties guilty of the unjust acts would have the ability to respond to a campaign of nonviolence. Since they are already engaged in violent practices which directly affect the health of life forms globally, it can only be assumed they would not hesitate to use the same or even an increase in violence against a nonviolent opponent.
In The Politics of Violence: Revolution in the Modern World, Leiden and Schmitt argue that “the presence of violence in a community does not of itself mean that revolution becomes necessarily more likely, but it does suggest that revolution, if it does appear, will be accompanied by violence in generous quantities” (1968, p. 21).
This statement makes a great deal of sense. In societies where there is little violence, especially of the state sponsored variety, it could be suggested that the people and governments may be more receptive to nonviolent approaches for change. Unfortunately, in countries where there is a tremendous amount of state sponsored violence, the possibilities of solving grievances in a strictly nonviolent fashion could be minimal.
In fact, as always, the settler has shown him the way he should take if he is to become free. The argument the native chooses has been furnished by the settler, and by an ironic turning of the tables it is the native who now affirms that the colonialist understands nothing but force (1963, p. 84).
Robert Williams also felt that the strategy of nonviolence relied upon the willingness of the oppressor to concede to the requests of the peaceful. Tyson suggests that:
The problem as Williams presented it, however, was that nonviolence depended on the conscience of the adversary; rattlesnakes, he observed, were immune to such appeals, as were many Southern white supremacists (1999, p. 214).
Williams himself stated, “Nonviolence is a very potent weapon when the opponent is civilized, but nonviolence is no repellent for a sadist” (p. 214). He further demonstrated his lack of expectations in the oppressive opposition when he wrote Negroes with Guns. In it Williams argues, “When an oppressed people show a willingness to defend themselves, the enemy, who is a moral weakling and coward is more willing to grant concessions and work for a respectable compromise” (Katope & Zolbrod, 1970, p. 396).
Mandela felt that nonviolence not only had not worked in the South African freedom struggle, but had actually provoked more violence from the government. He stated:
The government has interpreted the peacefulness of the movement as weakness; the people's non-violent policies have been taken as a green light for government violence. Refusal to resort to force has been interpreted by the government to use armed force against the people without any fear of reprisals (1986, p. 123).
It is also seemingly ironic that those who preach about the adherence to nonviolent philosophies and tactics directly have often benefited from political violence. Here in the United States, the public schooling system teaches youth to have pride in this country’s history. Simultaneously, the same nation will argue that only nonviolent state sanctioned tactics are deemed socially and politically tolerable. Yet, the foundations of this country are built upon political violence, the armed uprisings that led directly to the American Revolution. The educational system also teaches the heroic actions of the Boston Tea Party, interestingly enough, perhaps one of the earliest best known examples of politically motivated property destruction. Not only was the United States formed through extreme political violence, both against European powers and indigenous nations, but more importantly the country has maintained its power only through political violence. Regardless of its perceived immorality, it is a true fact. Still, advocates of social and political change within this country argue that strict adherence to nonviolence will indeed be able to achieve justice and true freedom for all.
Bakunin, who many identify as being one of the founders of anarchist theory, wrote about this mythological higher ethic that the oppressing parties are supposed to inherently possess:
It is clear that the people, longing for emancipation, cannot expect it from the theoretical triumph of abstract right; they must win liberty by force, for which purpose they must organize their powers apart from and against the State (Maximoff, 1953, p. 376).
He goes even further to question the historical role nonviolence has played in class struggles, “was there ever, at any period, or in any country, a single example of a privileged and dominant class which granted concessions freely, spontaneously, and without being driven to it by force or fear?” (p. 377).
For many, the question of whether or not to consider employing political violence comes down to one of strategy. Is political violence capable of advancing social and political movements? Is it viable as a means of successful self-defense? What is the historical success record of violent tactics? All of these questions are detrimental in contemplating this controversial subject.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote that:
Violence exercised merely in self-defense, all societies, from the most primitive to the most cultured and civilized, is accepted as moral and legal. The principle of self-defense, even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi (Tyson, 1999, p. 215).
This is an amazingly powerful quote from King that partially debunks the myths held by nonviolent absolutists in their worshiping of Gandhi.
In an essay entitled, "Political Violence in Analytical Perspective," Apter admits the historical importance of political violence. He writes:
It becomes difficult to ignore the heroic side of political violence. Reallocations of wealth, moral teleologies of human betterment, doctrines of how to realize it, these are also inseparable from political violence. It would be hard to envisage the evolution of democracy or for that matter the English, French, and American revolutions without such violence and indeed fears of its potentiality. The list of reforms which were successfully pushed and prodded by confrontational violence is a long one. Nor can violence be completely separated from institutional politics. The right to organize, and the actual organization of trade unions, or civil rights required a certain tandem connection between political violence and the ballot box, extra-institutional protest movements and political parties. It takes confrontation, outside the law to make the law itself. Few basic changes in the content and scope, logic and practices of liberty and equality occur peacefully, contained within the framework of institutional politics (Apter, 1997, p. 3).
Walter Laqueur, in his 1987 book, The Age of Terrorism, argues that terrorism—a form of political violence—can be effective on a short term basis. He writes:
Where terrorism has been successful its aims have usually been limited and clearly defined. The daily wage of American iron workers (AFL) went up from $2.00 to $4.30 (for shorter hours) between 1905 and 1910 as the result of the bombing of some one hundred buildings and bridges. Spanish workers, using similar methods, improved their wages during the first world war (p. 75).
To followers of nonviolence practice and philosophy, perhaps the most important discussion is over the means versus ends argument. Nonviolent theorists hold as a foundation of their beliefs that the ends do not justify the means. Many suggest that it is unproductive to engage in strategies and tactics which do not fall within the ideal world one is seeking to create. Additionally, there is the circle of violence notion that implies that violence met with violence creates an endless spiral of destruction. Often times it is argued that only nonviolent tactics can break this vicious circle.
While in circumstances of immediate and desperate self-defense, often one does not have the luxury of debating the means versus ends topic. Differing Native American nations that resorted to violence in self-defense against European settlers, arguably did so not after a lengthy contemplation of means and ends, but because there was an immediate realization made that they were threatened with annihilation.
In times of urgent self-defense and in calculated offensive action, Kunda felt that it is often more important to stop the immediate evil at hand than to let it continue due to a reluctance of engaging in political violence. He wrote:
War is just like bush clearing—the moment you stop, the jungle comes back even thicker, but for a little while you can plant and grow a crop in the ground you have won at such terrible cost (1980, p. 78).
As simplistic as it is, this statement by Kunda is perhaps one of the more honest realities of struggle. For many there simply is not the opportunity, as they perceive it, to limit their tactics to those only which they would like used on them in the utopian world.
Responding to the words of Jesus in his second commandment, I must love my neighbor as myself, Kunda asks, “Can I reconcile my love for my neighbor with watching him from a distance being brutalized and tormented and reduced to the level of an animal and do nothing about it?” (1980, p. 88). This is an extremely potent question. While the logic of Gandhian nonviolence, among others, holds that one must have and demonstrate love and compassion for the opponent and restrict any physical suffering to one’s self, a conflict of interest arises when friends, family, neighbors, and nations greatly suffer from this lack of more direct rebellion. On a smaller scale, the situation that arises during a time of a witnessed rape is perhaps the most compelling in illustrating this problem. If one is a witness to a rape and it is clear that nonviolent tactics (if there is time to consider them) will not work, is it not more violent to do nothing and allow the act to continue? Is it not more violent to refuse to engage in whatever tactics may be necessary to stop the rape? This same logic can be applied in larger confrontations where matters of justice, liberty, and life are concerned.
You have no option but to be a pacifist if you believe that the worst thing you can do to a man is kill him. But you may think that there is something worse you can do to him—connive at the business of allowing him to become a real devil as he robs others of their humanity and defaces the image of God in them. And to do that you need to do absolutely nothing—just fold your arms, shake your head in despair and watch him take himself and his victim to hell (p. 89).
If your family, if your people, if your nation is being attacked is it not a greater evil to allow the horrific cruelties of warfare to take their toll on those you identify with?
Former concentration camp inmate during the Nazi holocaust, Bruno Bettelheim, has harshly criticized Jews during this period who did not fight back against the oppressive and murderous conditions. He asserts that nonviolence not only did not help the plight of the Jews, but actually assisted in their smooth and speedy liquidation process. Speaking in reference to the revolt of the twelfth Sonderkommando, Bettelheim stated:
They did only what we should expect all human beings to do; to use their death, if they could not save their lives, to weaken or hinder the enemy as much as possible; to use even their doomed selves for making extermination harder, or maybe impossible, not a smooth-running process. . . . If they could do it, so could others. Why didn’t they? Why did they throw their lives away instead of making things hard for the enemy? Why did they make a present of their very being to the SS instead of to their families, their friends, even to their fellow prisoners? (Churchill, 1998, pp. 35-36).
He continues with a sharp critique of the apparent pacifism demonstrated by many in the ghettos and death camps:
The persecution of the Jews was aggravated, slow step by slow step, when no violent fighting back occurred. It may have been Jewish acceptance, without retaliatory fight, of ever harsher discrimination and degradation that first gave the SS the idea that they could be gotten to the point where they would walk into the gas chambers on their own. . . . In the deepest sense, the walk to the gas chamber was only the last consequence of the philosophy of business as usual (Churchill, 1998, p. 37).
Should the Jews, particularly those who did revolt—such as the twelfth Sonderkommando unit—have not engaged in such violent rebellion out of some moral hierarchy of beliefs regarding means and ends? To most in the current day this notion constitutes one of the highest levels of absurdity. To the twelfth Sonderkommando, and others in similar circumstances, death was imminent and to not act, to not offer any direct form of confrontation meant, as Abbie Hoffman once put it in 1969, to die like lambs to the slaughter. Bettelheim points out:
In the single revolt of the twelfth Sonderkommando, seventy SS were killed, including one commissioned officer and seventeen non-commissioned officers; one of the crematoria was totally destroyed and another severely damaged. True, all eight hundred and fifty-three of the commando died. But . . . the one Sonderkommando which revolted and took such a heavy toll of the enemy did not die much differently than all the other Sonderkommandos (Churchill, 1998, p. 35).
To suggest that there is a legitimacy of political violence can be a controversial and even dangerous move in this day and age. This is particularly the case in the post September 11, 2001 atmosphere of heightened anti-terrorism hysteria and political repression within the United States. However, there is a documented history, on a global basis, of the crucial role political violence has played in progressing struggles for justice.
This notion of legitimacy is not intended to produce either a moral condemnation or support of political violence but rather to advance the idea that it does exist as a viable option for political and social movements. One standard definition of legitimacy, as it exists in the 1933 Oxford Universal Dictionary, is conformity to rule or principle, or to sound reasoning. As discussed earlier in this essay, one may easily question whether or not sound reasoning would allow someone not to engage in political violence when their life and the lives of their people are at stake. Ball-Rokeach, in an essay entitled, "The Legitimization of Violence," defines legitimacy as “a collective judgment that attributes the qualities of ‘goodness’ or ‘morality’ or ‘righteousness’ to behavior” (Short & Wolfgang, 1972, p. 101).
In defending the right to step beyond nonviolent tactics, Mandela wrote, “World history in general, and that of South Africa in particular, teaches that resort(ing) to violence may in certain cases be perfectly legitimate” (1986, p. 185). Apter states that some theorists declare, “applied to autocracies, political violence becomes self-legitimizing, and expression of the natural desire for freedom and liberty” (1997, p. 7).
Global history has demonstrated that a universal key to the progression of justice struggles is a combination of tactics and strategies. Rather than limiting a particular movement to one set of strategies, there is a conclusive amount of evidence which indicates every tool in the toolbox must be available for use. Apter states that:
It is common for a given movement to combine extra-institutional protest with an underground wing using terrorism, aiming to create a revolutionary disjunction. Such combinations allow different strategies and modalities of action by different parts of the same organization (1997, p. 10).
Churchill argues that the goal of political and social movements should not be to simply replace nonviolent tactics with those of political violence but rather:
It is the realization that, in order to be effective and ultimately successful, any revolutionary movement within advanced capitalist nations must develop the broadest possible range of thinking/action by which to confront the state (1998, p. 103).
In the history of the United States, many movements for justice and liberty have relied upon this mixture of strategies and tactics. In the abolitionist struggle, blacks did not progress merely as a result of asking the white power structure nicely. It came as a result of both legal and illegal actions, from the Underground Railroad to the scattered slave revolts. Likewise, the Suffragette movement relied upon not just the Susan B. Anthony mainstream efforts, but in addition, those with a more militant leaning such as Alice Paul who engaged in illegal activities. In labor issues, the organizing of the workplace, peaceful protest and boycotts, were perhaps just as crucial as the riots and revolts in obtaining more tolerable working conditions. The progress of the civil rights movement, itself founded upon the illegal civil disobedience campaigns against segregation and disenfranchisement, was aided in the emergence of the Black Power struggle which made nonviolent campaigns much more attractive to the white racists.
Even outside of the United States, examples can be cited to demonstrate the legitimacy of political violence. The Indian Independence Movement, by far one of the most classic and often referred to examples of successful nonviolent application, had both legal and illegal, violent and nonviolent components. Churchill asserts that the success of Gandhi relied upon not only his nonviolent Satyagraha principles and practices, but also such key factors as the “the decline in British power brought about by two world wars within a thirty-year period” (1998, p. 42). He continues:
Prior to the decimation of British troop strength and the virtual bankruptcy of the Imperial treasury during World War II, Gandhi’s movement showed little likelihood of forcing England’s abandonment of India. Without the global violence that destroyed the Empire’s ability to forcibly control its colonial territories (and passive populations), India might have continued indefinitely in the pattern of minority rule marking the majority of South Africa’s modern history, the first locale in which the Gandhian recipe for liberation struck the reef of reality. Hence, while the Mahatma and his followers were able to remain “pure,” their victory was contingent upon others physically gutting their opponents for them (1998, p. 42).
Similar to the civil rights movement in the United States, Gandhi’s nonviolent movement was made much more appealing by the actual armed revolts and threat of further violence. It is easily argued that, deliberate or not, these two forces—violent and nonviolent action—worked together to force the British to give up India.
In reference of the legitimacy of political violence, often times, in the minds of those arguing for and/or committing the acts themselves, there is a belief that the decision to resort to violence comes from sound reasoning. Additionally, political violence has a long documented history globally, as a practice which has and continues to play a role in political activity. For these reasons alone, it is safe to proclaim there is a legitimacy to political violence. This is not an effort to condone or condemn it at this point, rather to create a realistic analysis of the controversial subject.
No one in their right mind wants to use or resort to violence at any time during their lives. Instead, it is honestly more desirable to petition for peace, and have the luxury and privilege to engage in the respectable means verses ends debate. That said, it is also a matter of realism to state that it is impossible to have peace without justice. In pursuing justice, when nonviolent means of social and political change have been exhausted, one is left with the choice to advance tactics to a level of political violence or to do nothing. Of course, for many people in many circumstances, to do nothing means sheer suicide. It is a timeless dilemma, a debate that is often dominated by the nonviolence sector, coming from a position of privilege, regardless of historical facts. For myself and for my own acknowledgment of my humanity, I can only hope that if I was one of the Jews on the way to the execution chamber, I too would have rose up in defiance, attempting to kill as many SS as possible, not only for me but for the sake of justice.
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