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A Special Supplement: Reflections on Violence


These reflections were provoked by the events and debates of the last few years, as seen against the background of the twentieth century. Indeed this century has become, as Lenin predicted, a century of wars and revolutions, hence a century of that violence which is currently believed to be their common denominator. There is, however, another factor in the present situation which, though predicted by nobody, is of at least equal importance. The technical development of implements of violence has now reached the point where no political goal could conceivably correspond to their destructive potential or justify their actual use in armed conflict. Hence, warfare—since times immemorial the final merciless arbiter in international disputes—has lost much of its effectiveness and nearly all of its glamor. “The apocalyptic” chess game between the superpowers, that is, between those that move on the highest plane of our civilization, is being played according to the rule: “if either ‘wins’ it is the end of both.”1 Moreover the game bears no resemblance to whatever war games preceded it. Its “rational” goal is mutual deterrence, not victory.

Since violence—as distinct from power, force, or strength—always needs implements (as Engels pointed out long ago),2 the revolution in technology, a revolution in tool-making, was especially marked in warfare. The very substance of violent action is ruled by the question of means and ends, whose chief characteristic, if applied to human affairs, has always been that the end is in danger of being overwhelmed by the means, which it both justifies and needs. Since the end of human action, in contrast with the products of fabrication, can never be reliably predicted, the means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals. Moreover, all violence harbors within itself an element of arbitrariness; nowhere does Fortuna, good or ill luck, play a more important role in human affairs than on the battlefield; and this intrusion of the “Random Event” cannot be eliminated by game theories but only by the certainty of mutual destruction. It seems symbolic of this all-pervading unpredictability that those engaged in the perfection of the means of destruction have finally brought about a level of technical development where their aim, namely warfare, is on the point of disappearing altogether.3

No one concerned with history and politics can remain unaware of the enormous role violence has always played in human affairs; and it is at first glance rather surprising that violence has so seldom been singled out for special consideration.^4 This shows to what extent violence and its arbitrary nature were taken for granted and therefore neglected; no one questions or examines what is obvious to all. Whoever looked for some kind of sense in the records of the past was almost bound to look upon violence as a marginal phenomenon. When Clausewitz calls war “the continuation of politics with other means,” or Engels defines violence as the accelerator of economic development,5 the emphasis is on political or economic continuity, on continuing a process which is determined by what preceded violent action. Hence, students of international relations have held until very recently that “it was a maxim that a military resolution in discord with the deeper cultural sources of national power could not be stable,” or that, in Engels’s words, “wherever the power structure of a country contradicts its economic development” political power with its means of violence will suffer defeat.6

Today all these old verities about the relation of war and politics or about violence and power no longer apply. We know that “a few weapons could wipe out all other sources of national power in a few moments,” 7 that biological weapons are devised which would enable “small groups of individuals…to upset the strategic balance” and be cheap enough to be produced by “nations unable to develop nuclear striking forces,”8 that “within a very few years” robot soldiers will have made “human soldiers completely obsolete,”9 and that, finally, in conventional warfare the poor countries are much less vulnerable than the great powers precisely because they are “underdeveloped” and because technical superiority can “be much more of a liability than an asset” in guerrilla wars.10

What all these very uncomfortable novelties add up to is a reversal in the relationship between power and violence, foreshadowing another reversal in the future relationship between small and great powers. The amount of violence at the disposal of a given country may no longer be a reliable indication of that country’s strength or a reliable guarantee against destruction by a substantially smaller and weaker power. This again bears an ominous similarity to one of the oldest insights of political science, namely that power cannot be measured by wealth, that an abundance of wealth may erode power, that riches are particularly dangerous for the power and well-being of republics.

The more doubtful the outcome of violence in international relations, the more it has gained in reputation and appeal in domestic affairs, specifically in the matter of revolution. The strong Marxist flavor in the rhetoric of the New Left coincides with the steady growth of the entirely non-Marxian conviction, proclaimed by Mao Tsetung, “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” To be sure, Marx was aware of the role of violence in history, but this role was to him secondary; not violence but the contradictions inherent in the old society brought about its end. The emergence of a new society was preceded, but not caused, by violent outbreaks, which he likened to the labor pangs that precede, but of course do not cause, the event of organic birth.

In the same vein, Marx regarded the state as an instrument of violence at the command of the ruling class; but the actual power of the ruling class did not consist of nor rely on violence. It was defined by the role the ruling class played in society, or more exactly, by its role in the process of production. It has often been noticed, and sometimes deplored, that the revolutionary Left, under the influence of Marx’s teachings, ruled out the use of violent means; the “dictatorship of the proletariat”—openly repressive in Marx’s writings—came after the revolution and was meant, like the Roman dictatorship, as a strictly limited period. Political assassination, with the exception of a few acts of individual terror perpetuated by small groups of anarchists, was mostly the prerogative of the Right, while organized armed uprisings remained the specialty of the military.

On the level of theory, there were a few exceptions. Georges Sorel, who at the beginning of the century tried a combination of Marxism with Bergson’s philosophy of life—which on a much lower level of sophistication shows an odd similarity with Sartre’s current amalgamation of existentialism and Marxism—thought of class struggle in military terms; but he ended by proposing nothing more violent than the famous myth of the general strike, a form of action which we today would rather think of as belonging to the arsenal of nonviolent politics.

Fifty years ago, even this modest proposal earned him the reputation of being a fascist, his enthusiastic approval of Lenin and the Russian Revolution notwithstanding. Sartre, who in his Preface to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth goes much further in his glorification of violence than Sorel in his famous Reflections on Violence—further than Fanon himself whose argument he wishes to bring to its conclusion—still mentions “Sorel’s fascist utterances.” This shows to what extent Sartre is unaware of his basic disagreement with Marx on the question of violence, especially when he states that “irrepressible violence…is man recreating himself,” that it is “mad fury” through which “the wretched of the earth” can “become men.”

These notions are all the more remarkable since the idea of man creating himself is in the tradition of Hegelian and Marxian thinking; it is the very basis of all leftist humanism. But according to Hegel, man “produces” himself through thought,11 whereas for Marx, who turned Hegel’s “idealism” upside down, it was labor, the human form of metabolism with nature, that fulfilled this function. One may argue that all notions of man-creating-himself have in common a rebellion against the human condition itself—nothing is more obvious than that man, be it as a member of the species or as an individual, does not owe his existence to himself—and that therefore what Sartre, Marx, and Hegel have in common is more relevant than the specific activities through which this non-fact should have come about. Still, it is hardly deniable that a gulf separates the essentially peaceful activities of thinking or laboring and deeds of violence. “To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone…there remains a dead man and a free man,” writes Sartre in his Preface. This is a sentence Marx could never have written.

I quote Sartre in order to show that this new shift toward violence in the thinking of revolutionaries can remain unnoticed even by one of their most representative and articulate spokesmen.12 If one turns the “idealistic” concept of thought upside down one might arrive at the “materialistic” concept of labor; one will never arrive at the notion of violence. No doubt, this development has a logic of its own, but it is logic that springs from experience and not from a development of ideas; and this experience was utterly unknown to any generation before.

The pathos and the élan of the New Left, their credibility as it were, are closely connected with the weird suicidal development of modern weapons; this is the first generation that grew up under the shadow of the atom bomb, and it inherited from the generation of its fathers the experience of a massive intrusion of criminal violence into politics—they learned in high school and in college about concentration and extermination camps, about genocide and torture, about the wholesale slaughter of civilians in war, without which modern military operations are no longer possible even if they remain restricted to “conventional” weapons.

The first reaction was a revulsion against violence in all its forms, an almost matter-of-course espousal of a politics of nonviolence. The successes of this movement, especially with respect to civil rights, were very great, and they were followed by the resistance movement against the war in Vietnam which again determined to a considerable degree the climate of opinion in this country. But it is no secret that things have changed since then, and it would be futile to say that only “extremists” are yielding to a glorification of violence, and believe, with Fanon, that “only violence pays.”13

The new militants have been denounced as anarchists, red fascists, and, with considerably more justification, “Luddite machine smashers.”14 Their behavior has been blamed on all kinds of social and psychological causes, some of which we shall have to discuss later. Still, it seems absurd, especially in view of the global character of the phenomenon, to ignore the most obvious and perhaps the most potent factor in this development, for which moreover no precedent and no analogy exist—the fact that, in general, technological progress seems in so many instances to lead straight to disaster, and, in particular, the proliferation of techniques and machines which, far from only threatening certain classes with unemployment, menaces the very existence of whole nations and, conceivably, of all mankind. It is only natural that the new generation should live with greater awareness of the possibility of doomsday than those “over thirty,” not, because they are younger but because this was their first decisive experience in the world. If you ask a member of this generation two simple questions: “How do you wish the world to be in fifty years?” and “What do you want your life to be like five years from now?” the answers are quite often preceded by a “Provided that there is still a world,” and “Provided I am still alive.”

  1. 1

    Harvey Wheeler, “The Strategic Calculators,” in Nigel Calder, Unless Peace Comes, New York, Viking, 1968, p. 109.

  2. 2

    Herrn Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft, (1878) Part II, Ch. 2.

  3. 3

    As General André Beaufre points out (“Battlefields of the 1980s,” in Calder, op. cit., p. 3): Only “in those parts of the world not covered by nuclear deterrence” is war still possible, and even this “conventional warfare,” despite its horrors, is actually already limited by the ever-present threat of escalation into nuclear war. The chief reason why warfare is still with us is neither a secret death wish of the human species nor an irrepressible instinct of aggression nor, finally and more plausibly, the serious economic and social dangers inherent in disarmament, but the simple fact that nothing to substitute for this final arbiter in international affairs has yet appeared on the political scene.

  4. 5

    See Engels, op. cit., Part II, Ch. 4.

  5. 6

    Wheeler, op. cit., p. 107 and Engels, op. cit., loc. cit.

  6. 7

    Wheeler, op. cit., loc. cit.

  7. 8

    Nigel Calder, “The New Weapons,” in op. cit., p. 239.

  8. 9

    M. W. Thring, “Robots on the March,” in Calder, op. cit., p. 169.

  9. 10

    Vladimir Dedijer, “The Poor Man’s Power,” in Calder, op. cit., p. 29.

  10. 11

    It is quite suggestive that Hegel speaks in this context of “Sichselbst-produzieren.” See Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie, ed. Hoffmeister, p. 114.

  11. 12

    The New Left’s unconscious drifting away from Marxism has been duly noticed. See especially recent comments on the student movement by Leonard Schapiro in The New York Review of Books (December 5, 1968) and La Révolution Introuvable, Paris, 1968, by Raymond Aron. Both consider the new emphasis on violence as a kind of backsliding either to pre-Marxian utopian socialism (Aron) or to the Russian anarchism of Nechaev and Bakunin (Schapiro), who “had much to say about the importance of violence as a factor of unity, as the binding force in a society or group, a century before the same ideas emerged in the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon.” Aron writes in the same vein: “Les chantres de la révolution de mai croient dépasser le marxisme;…ils oublient un siècle d’histoire.” (p. 14). To a non-Marxist such a reversion would of course hardly be an argument; but for Sartre, who for instance writes, “revisionism is reversion to pre-Marxism and therefore untenable” (my italics), it must constitute a formidable objection.

    Sartre himself, in his Critique of Dialectical Reason, gives a kind of Hegelian explanation for his espousal of violence. His point of departure is that “need and scarcity determined the Manicheistic basis of action and morals” in present history, “whose truth is based on scarcity [and] must manifest itself in an antagonistic reciprocity between classes.” Under such circumstances, violence is no longer a marginal phenomenon. “Violence and counterviolence are perhaps contingencies, but they are contingent necessities, and the imperative consequence of any attempt to destroy this inhumanity is that in destroying in the adversary the inhumanity of the contra-man, I can only destroy in him the humanity of man, and realize in me his inhumanity. Whether I kill, torture, enslave…my aim is to suppress his freedom—it is an alien force, de trop.” His model for a condition in which “each one is one too many…. Each is redundant for the other,” are the members of a bus queue who obviously “take no notice of each other except as a number in a quantitative series.” He concludes, “They reciprocally deny any link between each of their inner worlds.” From this, it follows that praxis “is the negation of alterity, which is itself a negation”—a highly welcome conclusion since the negation of a negation is an affirmation.

    The flaw in the argument seems to me obvious. There is all the difference in the world between “not taking notice” and “denying,” between “denying any link” with somebody and “negating” his otherness; and there is still a considerable distance to travel from this theoretical “negation” until any sane person will arrive at killing, torturing, and enslaving.

    All the above quotations are drawn from R. D. Laing, and D. G. Cooper, Reason and Violence: A Decade of Sartre’s Philosophy, 1950-1960, London, 1964, Part III. This seems fair since Sartre in his Foreword to the book says: “J’ai lu attentivement l’ouvrage que vous avez bien voulu me confier et j’ai eu le grand plaisir d’y trouver un exposé très clair et très fidèle de ma pensée.”

  12. 13

    Page 61. I am using Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) because of its great influence on the present student generation. Fanon himself, however, is much more doubtful about violence than his admirers. It seems that only the first chapter of the book, “Concerning Violence,” has been widely read. Fanon knows of the “unmixed and total brutality [which], if not immediately combated, invariably leads to the defeat of the movement within a few weeks.” Grove Press edition, 1968, p. 147.

  13. 14

    Nathan Glazer, in an article on “Student Power at Berkeley” in The Public Interest (Special Issue, The Universities, Fall, 1968) writes: “The student radicals…remind me more of the Luddite machine smashers than the Socialist trade unionists who achieved citizenship and power for workers,” and he concludes from this impression that Zbgniew Brzezinski (in an article about Columbia in The New Republic, June 1, 1968) may have been right in his diagnosis: “Very frequently revolutions are the last spasms of the past, and thus are not really revolutions but counterrevolutions, operating in the name of revolutions.” Isn’t this bias in favor of marching forward at any price rather odd in two authors who are generally considered to be conservatives? And isn’t it even more odd that Glazer should remain unaware of the decisive differences between manufacturing machinery in early nineteenth-century England and the hardware developed in the middle of the twentieth century, much of which is for destruction and not for production and can’t even be smashed by the rebels for the simple reason that they know neither where it is located nor how to smash it?

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