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A Special Supplement: Reflections on Violence

Where power has disintegrated revolutions are possible but not necessary. We know of many instances when utterly impotent regimes were permitted to continue in existence for long periods of time—either because there was no one to test their strength and to reveal their weakness or because they were lucky enough not to be engaged in war and suffer defeat. For disintegration often becomes manifest only in direct confrontation; and even then, when power is already in the street, some group of men, prepared for such an eventuality, is needed to pick it up and assume responsibility.

We have recently witnessed how the relatively harmless, essentially non-violent French students’ rebellion was sufficient to reveal the vulnerability of the whole political system, which rapidly disintegrated before the astonished eyes of the young rebels. Without knowing it they had tested the system; they intended no more than to challenge the ossified university system, and down came the system of governmental power together with that of the huge party bureaucracies—“une sorte de desintégration de toutes les hiérarchies.”28 It was a textbook case of a revolutionary situation which did not develop into a revolution because there was nobody, least of all the students, who was prepared to seize power and the responsibility that goes with it.

Nobody except, of course, De Gaulle. Nothing was more characteristic of the seriousness of the situation than his appeal to the army, his ride to see Massu and the generals in the dark of the night, a walk to Canossa if there ever was one in view of what had happened only a few years before. But what he sought and received was support, not obedience, and the means to obtain it were not commands but concessions.29 If commands had been enough he would never have had to leave Paris.

No government exclusively based upon the means of violence has ever existed. Even the totalitarian ruler needs a power basis, the secret police and its net of informers. Only the development of robot soldiers, which would eliminate the human factor completely and, conceivably, permit one man with a pushbutton at his disposal to destroy whomever he pleases could change this fundamental ascendancy of power over violence. Even the most despotic domination we know of, the rule of master over slaves, who always outnumbered him, did not rest upon superior means of coercion as such but upon a superior organization of power, that is, upon the organized solidarity of the masters.30

Single men without others to support them never have enough power to use violence. Hence, in domestic affairs, violence functions indeed as the last resort of power against criminals or rebels—that is, against individuals who, as it were, refuse to be overpowered by the consensus of the majority. And even in actual warfare, we have seen in Vietnam how an enormous superiority in the means of violence can become helpless if confronted with an ill-equipped but well organized opponent who is much more powerful. This lesson, to be sure, could have been learned since the beginnings of guerrilla warfare, which is at least as old as the defeat of Napoleon’s still unvanquished army in Spain.

To switch for a moment to conceptual language: Power is indeed of the essence of all government, but violence is not. Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the end it pursues. And what needs justification through something else cannot be the essence of anything. The end of war is peace; but to the question, And what is the end of peace?, there is no answer. Peace is an absolute, even though in recorded history the periods of warfare have nearly always outlasted the periods of peace. Power is in the same category; it is, as the saying goes, “an end in itself.” (This, of course, is not to deny that governments pursue policies and employ their power to achieve prescribed goals. But the power structure itself precedes and outlasts all aims, so that power, far from being the means to an end, is actually the very condition that enables a group of people to think and act according to means and ends.) And since government is essentially organized and institutionalized power, the current question, What is the end of government?, does not make much sense either. The answer will be either question-begging—to enable men to live together—or dangerously utopian: to promote happiness or to realize a classless society or some other nonpolitical ideal, which if tried out in earnest can only end in the worst kind of government, that is, tyranny.

Power needs no justification as it is inherent in the very existence of political communities; what, however, it does need is legitimacy. The common usage of these two words as synonyms is no less misleading and confusing than the current equation of obedience and support. Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert, but it derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together rather than from any action that then may follow. Violence needs justification and it can be justifiable, but its justification loses in plausibility the farther away its intended end recedes into the future. No one will question the use of violence in self-defense because the danger is not only clear but present, and the end to justify the means is immediate.


Power and violence, though they are distinct phenomena, usually appear together. Up to now, we have discussed such combinations and found that. wherever they are so combined, power is the primary and predominant factor. The situation, however, is entirely different when we deal with them in their pure states—as for instance in cases of foreign invasion and occupation. The difficulties of achieving such domination are very great indeed, and the occupying invader will try immediately to establish Quisling governments, that is, to find a native power base with which to support his dominion. The head-on clash between Russian tanks and the entirely non-violent resistance of the people in Czechoslovakia is a textbook case of a confrontation of violence and power in their pure states.

But while this kind of domination is difficult, it is not impossible. Violence, we must remember, does not depend on numbers or opinion but on implements, and the implements of violence share with all other tools that they increase and multiply human strength. Those who oppose violence with mere power will soon find out that they are confronted not with men but with men’s artifacts, whose inhumanity and destructive effectiveness increase in proportion to the distance that separates the opponents. Violence can always destroy power; out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What can never grow out of it is power.

In a head-on clash between violence and power the outcome is hardly in doubt. If Gandhi’s enormously powerful and successful strategy of non-violent resistance had met with a different enemy—Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, even pre-war Japan, instead of England—the outcome would not have been decolonization but massacre and submission. However, England in India or France in Algeria had good reasons for their restraint. Rule by sheer violence comes into play where power is being lost; it is precisely the shrinking power of the Russian government, internally and externally, that became manifest in its “solution” of the Czechoslovak problem—just as it was the shrinking power of European imperialism that became manifest in the alternative of decolonization or massacre.

To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but its price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is paid by the victor in his own power. The much-feared boomerang effect of the “government of subject races” (Lord Cromer) upon the home government during the imperialist era meant that rule by violence in far-away lands would end by affecting the government of England, that the last “subject race” would be the English themselves. It has often been said that impotence breeds violence, and psychologically this is quite true. Politically, loss of power tempts men to substitute violence for power—we could watch this process on television during the Democratic Convention in Chicago31—and violence itself results in impotence.

Nowhere is the self-defeating factor in the victory of violence over power more evident than in the use of terror for purposes of maintaining domination, about whose weird successes and eventual failures we know perhaps more than any generation before us. Terror is not the same as violence; it is rather the form of government that comes into being when violence, having destroyed all power, does not abdicate but, on the contrary, remains in full control. It has often been noticed that the effectiveness of terror depends almost entirely on the degree of social atomization, the disappearance of every kind of organized opposition, which must be achieved before the full force of terror can be let loose. This atomization—an outrageously pale, academic word for the horror it implies—results finally in a total loss of power.

The decisive difference between totalitarian domination based on terror, and tyrannies and dictatorships, established by violence, is that only the former turns not only against its enemies but against its friends and supporters as well, being afraid of all power, even the power of its friends. The climax of terror is reached when the police state begins to devour its own children, when yesterday’s executioner becomes today’s victim. And this is also the moment when power disappears entirely. There exist now a great many plausible reasons to explain the de-Stalinization of Russia—none, I believe, so compelling as the realization by the Stalinist functionaries themselves that a continuation of the regime would lead, not to an insurrection, against which terror is indeed the best safeguard, but to a paralysis of the whole country.32

To sum up: politically speaking, it is not enough to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course its end is the disappearance of power. This implies that it is not correct to say that the opposite of violence is nonviolence: to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it. Hegel’s and Marx’s great trust in the dialectical “power of negation,” by virtue of which opposites do not destroy but smoothly develop into each other because contradictions promote and do not paralyze development, rests on a much older philosophical prejudice, the prejudice that evil is no more than a privative modus of the good, that good can come out of evil, that, in short, evil is but the temporary manifestation of a still hidden good. Such time-honored opinions have become dangerous. They are shared by many who have never heard of the names Hegel or Marx, for the simple reason that they inspire hope and dispel fear—a treacherous hope used to dispel legitimate fears. By this, I don’t mean to equate violence with evil; I only want to stress that violence can’t be derived from its opposite, which is power, and that in order to understand it for what it is, we shall have to examine its roots and causes.

  1. 28

    Raymond Aron, op. cit., p. 41.

  2. 29

    The price De Gaulle had to pay for the army’s support was public rehabilitation of his enemies—amnesty for General Salan, return of Bidault, return also of Colonel Lacheroy, sometimes called “the torturer in Algeria.” Not much seems to be known about the negotiations. One is tempted to think that the recent rehabilitation of Pétain, again glorified as the “victor of Verdun” and, more importantly, the incredible, blatantly lying statement immediately after, which blamed the Communist Party for what the French now call les évènements, were part of the bargain. God knows, the only reproach the government could have addressed to the Communist Party and the trade-unions was that they lacked the power to prevent les évènements.

  3. 30

    In ancient Greece, such an organization of power was the polis whose chief merit, according to Xenophon, was that it permitted the “citizens to act as bodyguards to one another against slaves.” Hiero, IV, 3.

  4. 31

    It would be interesting to know if, and to what extent, the alarming rate of unsolved crimes is matched not only by the well-known spectacular rise in criminal offenses but also by a definite increase in police brutality. The recently published Uniform Crime Report for the United States (Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Department of Justice, 1967) gives no indication how many crimes are actually solved—as distinguished from “cleared by arrest”—but does mention in the Summary that police solutions of serious crimes declined in 1967 by 8%. Only 21.7% (or 21.9%) of all crimes are “cleared by arrest,” and of these only 75% could be turned over to the courts and only about 60% of those were found guilty! Hence, the odds in favor of the criminal are so high that the constant rise in criminal offenses seems only natural. Whatever the causes for the spectacular decline of police efficiency, the decline of police power is evident and with it the likelihood of increased brutality.

  5. 32

    Solzhenitsyn, in The First Circle, shows in detail how attempts at rational economic development were wrecked by Stalin’s methods, and one hopes that this book will put to rest the myth that terror and the enormous loss in human lives were the price that had to be paid for rapid industrialization of the country. Rapid progress was made after Stalin’s death, and what is striking in Russia today is that the country is still backward not only in comparison with the West but with most of the satellite countries. In Russia itself, there seems to be not much illusion left on this point, if there ever was any. The younger generation, especially the veterans of the Second World War, knows very well that only a miracle saved Russia from defeat in 1941, and that this miracle was the brutal fact that the enemy turned out to be even worse than the native ruler. What then turned the scales was that police terror abated under the pressure of the national emergency; the people, left to themselves, could again gather together and generate enough power to defeat the foreign invader. When they returned from prisoner-of-war camps or from occupation duty they were promptly sent to long years in labor and concentration camps in order to break them from the habits of freedom. It is precisely this generation that tasted freedom during the war and the terror afterward that is challenging the tyranny of the present regime.

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