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A Special Supplement: Reflections on Violence

To be sure, the recent emphasis on violence is still mostly a matter of theory and rhetoric, but it is precisely this rhetoric, shot through with all kinds of Marxist leftovers, that is so baffling. Who could possibly call an ideology Marxist that has put its faith, to quote Fanon, in “the classless idlers,” believes that “in the lumpen-proletariat the rebellion will find its urban spearhead,” and trusts that the “gangsters light the way for the people”?15 Sartre in his great felicity with words has given expression to the new faith. “Violence,” he now believes, on the strength of Fanon’s book, “like Achilles’ lance, can heal the wounds that it has inflicted.” If this were true, revenge would be the cure-all for most of our ills. This myth is more abstract, further removed from reality than Sorel’s myth of a general strike ever was. It is on a par with Fanon’s worst rhetorical excesses, such as, “Hunger with dignity is preferable to bread eaten in slavery.” No history and no theory are needed to refute this statement; the most superficial observer of the processes in the human body knows its untruth. But had he said that bread eaten with dignity is preferable to cake eaten in slavery, the rhetorical point would have been lost.

If one reads these irresponsible and grandiose statements of these intellectuals—and those I quoted are fairly representative, except that Fanon still manages to stay closer to reality than most of them—and if one looks at them in the perspective of what we know about the history of rebellions and revolutions, it is tempting to deny their significance, to ascribe them to a passing mood, or to the ignorance and nobility of sentiment of those who are exposed to unprecedented events without any means to handle them mentally, and who therefore have revived thoughts and emotions which Marx had hoped to have buried forever. For it is certainly nothing new that those who are being violated dream of violence, that those who are oppressed “dream at least once a day of setting” themselves up in the oppressor’s place, that those who are poor dream of the possessions of the rich, that the persecuted dream of exchanging “the role of the quarry for that of the hunter,” and the last of the kingdom where “the last shall be first, and the first last.”16

The great rarity of slave-rebellions and of uprisings among the disinherited and downtrodden is notorious; on the rare occasions when they occurred it was precisely “mad fury” that turned dreams into nightmares for everybody, and in no case, so far as I know, was the force of mere “volcanic” outbursts, as Sartre states, “equal to that of the pressure put on” the oppressed. To believe that we deal with such outbursts bursts in the National Liberation Movements, and nothing more, is to prophesy their doom—quite apart from the fact that the unlikely victory would not result in the change of the world (or the system) but only of its personnel. To think, finally, that there is such a thing as the “Unity of the Third World” to which one could address the new slogan in the era of decolonization, “Natives of all underdeveloped countries unite!” (Sartre) is to repeat Marx’s worst illusions on a greatly enlarged scale and with considerably less justification.

There still remains the question why so many of these new preachers of violence have remained unaware of their decisive disagreement with the teachings of Karl Marx, or, to put it another way, why they cling with such stubborn tenacity to concepts which are not only refuted by actual events but are clearly inconsistent with their own politics. For although the one positive political slogan the new movement has put forth, the claim for “participatory democracy,” which has echoed around the globe and which constitutes the most significant common denominator of the rebellions in the East and the West, derives from the best in the revolutionary tradition—the council system, the always defeated but only authentic outgrowth of all revolutions since the eighteenth century—it cannot be found in nor does it agree, either in word or in substance, with the teachings of Marx and Lenin, both of whom aimed at a society in which the need for public action and participation in public affairs would have “withered away,” along with the state itself.

(It is true that a similar inconsistency could be charged to Marx and Lenin themselves. Didn’t Marx support and glorify the Paris Commune of 1871, and didn’t Lenin issue the famous slogan of the Russian Revolution, “All power to the soviets“? But Marx thought of the Commune not as a new form of government but as a necessarily transitory organ of revolutionary action, “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labor,” a form which, according to Engels, was identical with “the dictatorship of the Proletariat.” The case of Lenin is more complicated. Still, it was Lenin who emasculated the soviets and finally gave all power to the Party.)

Because of its curious timidity in theoretical matters, which contrasts oddly with its bold courage in practice, the slogan of the New Left has remained in a declamatory stage, to be invoked like a charm against both Western representative democracy, which is about to lose even its merely representative function to the huge party machines that “represent” not the party membership but its functionaries, and the Eastern one-party bureaucracies, which rule out participation on principle. I am not sure what the explanation of these inconsistencies will eventually turn out to be; but I suspect that the deeper reason for this loyalty to a typical nineteenth-century doctrine has something to do with the concept of Progress, with the unwillingness to part with this notion that has always united Liberalism, Socialism, and Communism, but has nowhere reached the level of plausibility and sophistication we find in the writings of Karl Marx. (For inconsistency has always been the Achilles’ heel of liberal thought; it combined an unswerving loyalty to Progress with a no less strict refusal to look upon History in Marxian and Hegelian terms, which alone could justify this belief.)

The notion that there is such a thing as Progress for mankind as a whole, that it is the law which rules all processes in the human species, was unknown prior to the eighteenth century and became an almost universally accepted dogma in the nineteenth. The same idea both informed Darwin’s biological discoveries, whereby mankind owed its very existence to an irrepressible forward movement of Nature, and gave rise to the new philosophies of History, which, since Hegel, have understood progress expressly in terms of organic development. Marx’s idea, borrowed from Hegel, that every old society harbors the seeds of its successors as every living organism harbors the seeds of its offspring is indeed not only the most ingenious but the only possible conceptual guarantee for the sempiternal continuity of Progress in History.

To be sure, a guarantee which in the final analysis rests on not much more than a metaphor is not the most solid basis to erect a doctrine upon, but this, unhappily, Marxism shares with a great many other doctrines in philosophy. Its great advantage becomes clear as soon as one compares it with other concepts of History—such as the rise and fall of empires, the eternal recurrence of the same, the haphazard sequence of essentially unconnected events—all of which can just as well be documented and justified, but none of which will guarantee a continuum of linear time and hence a continuous progress in history. And the only competitor in the field, the ancient notion of a Golden Age at the beginning, from which everything else is derived, implies the rather unpleasant certainty of continuous decline.

There are, however, a few melancholy side effects in the reassuring idea that we need only march into the future, which we can’t help doing anyhow, in order to find a better world. There is, first of all, the simple fact that this general future of mankind has nothing to offer the individual life, whose only certain future is death. And if one leaves this out of account and thinks only in generalities, there is the obvious argument against progress that, in the words of Herzen, “Human development is a form of chronological unfairness, since latecomers are able to profit by the labors of their predecessors without paying the same price,”17 or, in the words of Kant, “It will always remain bewildering…that the earlier generations seem to carry on their burdensome business only for the sake of the later…and that only the last should have the good fortune to dwell in the [completed] building.”18

However, these disadvantages, which were only rarely noticed, are more than outweighed by the enormous advantage that Progress not only explains the past without breaking up the time continuum, but can also serve as a guide for action into the future. This is what Marx discovered when he turned Hegel upside down: he changed the direction of the historian’s glance; instead of looking toward the past, he now could confidently look into the future. Progress gives an answer to the troublesome question: And what shall we do now? The answer, on the lowest level, says: Let us develop what we have into something better, greater, etc. (The liberals’ at first glance irrational faith in growth, so characteristic of all our present political and economic theories, depends on this notion.) On the more sophisticated level of the Left, it tells us to develop present contradictions into their inherent synthesis. In either case we are assured that nothing altogether new and unexpected can happen, nothing but the “necessary” results of what we already know.19 How reassuring that, in Hegel’s words, “nothing else will come out but what was already there.”20

I don’t need to add that all our experiences in this century, which has constantly confronted us with the totally unexpected, stand in flagrant contradiction to these notions and doctrines, whose very popularity seems to consist in offering a comfortable, speculative or pseudo-scientific, refuge from reality. But since we are concerned here primarily with violence I must warn against a tempting misunderstanding. If we look upon history as a continuous chronological process, violence in the shape of war and revolution may appear to constitute the only possible interruptions of such processes. If this were true, if only the practice of violence would make it possible to interrupt automatic processes in the realm of human affairs, the preachers of violent actions would have won an important point, although, so far as I know, they never made it. However, it is the function of all action, as distinguished from mere behavior, to interrupt what otherwise would have proceeded automatically and therefore predictably. And the distinction between violent and non-violent action is that the former is exclusively bent upon the destruction of the old and the latter chiefly concerned with the establishment of something new.

  1. 15

    Fanon, op. cit., pp. 130, 129, and 69, respectively.

  2. 16

    Fanon, op. cit., pp. 37ff. and 53.

  3. 17

    Alexander Herzen is quoted here from Isaiah Berlin’s “Introduction” to Franco Venturi, Roots of Revolution, New York, Grosset and Dunlap, 1966.

  4. 18

    Kant, “Idea for a Universal History with Cosmopolitan Intent,” Third Principle.

  5. 19

    For an excellent discussion of the obvious fallacies in this position, see Robert A. Nisbet, “The Year 2000 and All That,” in Commentary, June 1968, and the ill-tempered critical remarks in the September issue.

  6. 20

    Hegel, op. cit., pp. 100ff.

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