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A Special Supplement: Reflections on Violence


It is against the background of these experiences that I propose to raise the question of violence in the political realm. This is not easy; for Sorel’s remark sixty years ago, that “The problems of violence still remain very obscure,”21 is as true today as it was then. I mentioned the general reluctance to deal with violence as a separate phenomenon in its own right, and I must now qualify this statement. If we turn to the literature on the phenomenon of power, we soon find out that there exists an agreement among political theorists from Left to Right that violence is nothing more than the most flagrant manifestation of power. “All politics is a struggle for power; the ultimate kind of power is violence,” said C. Wright Mills, echoing, as it were, Max Weber’s definition of the state as the “rule of men over men, based on the means of legitimate, i.e. allegedly legitimate, violence.”22

The agreement is very strange; for to equate political power with “the organization of violence” makes sense only if one follows Marx’s estimate of the state as an instrument of suppression in the hands of the ruling class. Let us therefore turn to authors who do not believe that the body politic, its laws and institutions, are merely coercive superstructures, secondary manifestations of some underlying forces. Let us turn, for instance, to Bertrand de Jouvenel, whose book, Power, is perhaps the most prestigious and, anyway, the most interesting recent treatise on the subject. “To him,” he writes, “who contemplates the unfolding of the ages war presents itself as an activity of States which pertains to their essence.”23 But would the end of warfare, we are likely to ask, mean the end of States? Would the disappearance of violence in the relationships between States spell the end of power?

The answer, it seems, would depend on what we understand by power. De Jouvenel defines power as an instrument of rule, while rule, we are told, owes its existence to “the instinct of domination.”24 As he writes, “To command and to be obeyed: without that, there is no Power—with it no other attribute is needed for it to be …. The thing without which it cannot be: that essence is command.” If the essence of power is the effectiveness of command, then there is no greater power than that which grows out of the barrel of a gun. Bertrand de Jouvenel and Mao Tse-tung thus seem to agree on so basic a point in political philosophy as the nature of power.

These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man—of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody. Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done. It is this state of affairs which is among the most potent causes for the current world-wide rebellious unrest.

Moreover, the force of this ancient vocabulary has been considerably strengthened by more modern scientific and philosophical convictions concerning the nature of man. The many recent discoveries of an inborn instinct of domination and an innate aggressiveness in the human animal were preceded by very similar philosophic statements. According to John Stuart Mill “the first lesson of civilization [is] that of obedience,” and he speaks of “the two states of the inclinations…one the desire to exercise power over others; the other…disinclination to have power exercised over themselves.”25 If we would trust our own experiences in these matters, we should know that the instinct of submission, an ardent desire to obey and be ruled by some strong man, is at least as prominent in human psychology as the will-to-power, and politically perhaps more relevant.

A German saying that whoever wants to command must first learn how to obey points to the psychological truth in these matters, namely, that the will-to-power and the will-to-submission are interconnected; conversely, a strong disinclination to obey is usually accompanied by an equally strong repugnance to dominate and command. It is indeed bitter to obey, but from this it does not follow that to rule others is a pleasure. Historically speaking, the ancient institution of slave economy would be inexplicable on these grounds. For its express purpose was to liberate the citizens from the burden of household affairs and to permit them to enter the public life of the community where all were equals; if it were true that nothing is sweeter than to give commands and to rule others, the master would never have left his household.

However, there exists another tradition and another vocabulary no less old and time-honored than the one mentioned above. When the Athenian city-state called its constitution an isonomy or the Romans spoke of the civitas as their form of government, they had in mind another concept of power, which did not rely upon the command-obedience relationship. It is to these examples that the men of the eighteenth-century revolutions turned when they ransacked the archives of antiquity and constituted a republic, a form of government, where the rule of law, resting on the power of the people, would put an end to the rule of man over man, which they thought was “a government fit for slaves.” They too, unhappily, still talked about obedience—obedience to laws instead of men; but what they actually meant was the support of the laws to which the citizenry had given its consent.26

Such support is never unquestioning, and as far as reliability is concerned it cannot match the indeed “unquestioning obedience” that an act of violence can exact—the obedience every criminal can count on when he snatches my pocketbook with the help of a knife or robs a bank with the help of a gun. It is the support of the people that lends power to the institutions of a country, and this support is but the continuation of the consent which brought the laws into existence to begin with. (Under conditions of representative government the people are supposed to rule those who govern them.) All political institutions are manifestations and materializations of power; they petrify and decay as soon as the living power of the people ceases to uphold them. This is what Madison meant when he said, “all governments rest on opinion,” a statement that is no less true for the various forms of monarchies than it is for democracies. The strength of opinion, that is, the power of the government, is “in proportion to the number with which it is associated”^27.

Indeed, it is one of the most obvious distinctions between power and violence that power always stands in need of numbers, whereas violence relying on instruments up to a point can manage without them. A legally unrestricted majority rule, that is, a democracy without a constitution, can be very formidable indeed in the suppression of the rights of minorities and very effective in the suffocation of dissent without any use of violence. Undivided and unchecked power can bring about a “consensus” that is hardly less coercive than suppression by means of violence. But that does not mean that violence and power are the same.

It is, I think, a rather sad reflection on the present state of political science that our language does not distinguish between such key terms as power, strength, force, might, authority, and, finally, violence—all of which refer to distinct phenomena. To use them as synonyms not only indicates a certain deafness to linguistic meanings, which would be serious enough, but has resulted in a kind of blindness with respect to the realities they correspond to. Behind the apparent confusion lies a firm conviction that the most crucial political issue is, and always has been, the question of Who rules Whom? Only after one eliminates this disastrous reduction of public affairs to the business of dominion will the original data concerning human affairs appear or rather reappear in their authentic diversity.

It must be admitted that it is particularly tempting to think of power as a matter of command and obedience, and hence to equate power with violence, when discussing what is only one of power’s special provinces, namely, the power of government. Since in foreign relations as well as in domestic affairs violence is used as a last resort to keep the power structure intact against individual challengers—the foreign enemy, the native criminal—it looks indeed as though power, relying on violence, were the velvet glove which may or may not conceal an iron hand. However, upon closer inspection the assumption loses much of its plausibility. For our purpose, it is perhaps best illustrated by the phenomenon of revolution.


Since the beginning of the century, theoreticians have told us that the chances of revolution have significantly decreased in proportion to the increased destructive capacities of weapons at the unique disposition of governments. The history of the last seventy years, with its extraordinary record of successful and unsuccessful revolutions, tells a different story. Were people mad who even tried against such overwhelming odds? How can an even temporary success be explained? The fact is that the gap between state-owned means of violence and what people can muster by themselves—from beer bottles to Molotov cocktails and guns—has always been so enormous that technical improvements make hardly any difference. Textbook recommendations of “how to make a revolution” in an orderly progress from dissent to conspiracy, from resistance to armed uprising, are all based on the mistaken notion that revolutions are being “made.” In a contest of violence against violence the superiority of the government has always been absolute; but this superiority lasts only so long as the power structure of the government is intact—that is, so long as commands are obeyed and the army or police forces are prepared to risk their lives and use their weapons.

When this is no longer the case the situation changes abruptly. Not only is the rebellion not put down, the arms themselves change hands—sometimes, as in the Hungarian Revolution, within a few hours. (We should understand this after years of futile fighting in Vietnam where, prior to the full-scale Russian aid, the National Liberation Front for a long time fought us with weapons that were made in the United States.) Only after the disintegration of the government in power has permitted the rebels to arm themselves can one speak of an “armed uprising,” which often does not take place at all or occurs when it is no longer necessary. Where commands are no longer obeyed, the means of violence are of no use. Hence obedience is not determined by commands but by opinion, and, of course, by the number of those who share it. Everything depends upon the power behind the violence. The sudden dramatic breakdown of power, which ushers in revolutions, reveals in a flash how civil obedience—to the laws, to the rulers, to the institutions—is but the outward manifestation of support and consent.

  1. 21

    Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence, “Introduction to the First Publication” (1906), New York, Collier Books, 1961, p. 60

  2. 22

    C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite, New York, 1956, p. 171. Max Weber, in the first paragraph of Politics as a Vocation (1921). Weber seems to have been aware of his agreement with the Left. He quotes in this context Trotsky’s remark in Brest-Litovsk, “Every state is based on violence” and he adds, “This is indeed true.”

  3. 23

    Bertrand de Jouvenel, Power: The Natural History of its Growth (1945), 1952, p. 122.

  4. 24

    Ibid., p. 93.

  5. 25

    John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government (1861).

  6. 26

    The sanctions of the laws, which, however, are not their essence, are directed against those citizens who—without withholding their support—wish to make an exception from the law for themselves; the thief still expects the government to protect his newly acquired property. It has been noted that in the earliest systems of law there were no sanctions whatsoever. (See Jouvenel, op. cit., p. 276.) The punishment of the lawbreaker was banishment or outlawry; by breaking the law, the criminal had put himself outside the community constituted by it.

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