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A Special Supplement: Reflections on Violence


That violence often springs from rage is a commonplace, and rage can indeed be irrational and pathological, but so can every other human affect. It is no doubt possible to create conditions under which men are dehumanized—such as concentration camps, torture, famine, etc.—but this does not mean that they become animal-like; and, under such conditions, not rage and violence but their conspicuous absence is the clearest sign of dehumanization. For rage is by no means an automatic reaction to misery and suffering as such; no one reacts with rage to a disease beyond the powers of medicine or to an earthquake, or, for that matter, to social conditions which seem to be unchangeable. Only where there is reason to suspect that conditions could be changed and are not, does rage arise. Only when our sense of justice is offended do we react with rage.

To resort to violence in view of outrageous events or conditions is enormously tempting because of the immediacy and swiftness inherent in it. It goes against the grain of rage and violence to act with deliberate speed; but this does not make it irrational. On the contrary, in private as well as public life there are situations in which the very swiftness of a violent act may be the only appropriate remedy. The point is not that this will permit us to let off steam—which indeed can be equally well done by pounding the table or by finding another substitute. The point is that under certain circumstances violence, which is to act without argument or speech and without reckoning with consequences, is the only possibility of setting the scales of justice right again. (Billy Budd striking dead the man who bore false witness against him is the classic example.) In this sense, rage and the violence that sometimes, not always, goes with it belong among the “natural” human emotions, and to cure man of them would mean nothing less than to dehumanize or emasculate him.

Rage and violence turn irrational only when they are directed against substitutes, and this, I am afraid, is precisely what not only the psychiatrist and polemologists, concerned with human aggressiveness, commend, but what corresponds, alas, to certain moods and unreflected attitudes in society at large. We all know, for example, that it has become rather fashionable among white liberals to react against “black rage” with the cry, We are all guilty, and black militants have proved only too happy to accept this “confession” and to base on it some of their more fantastic demands.

Where all are guilty, however, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are always the best possible safeguard against the discovery of the actual culprits. In this particular instance, it is in addition a dangerous and obfuscating escalation of racism into some higher, less tangible regions: The real rift between black and white is not healed when it is being translated into an even less reconcilable conflict between collective innocence and collective guilt. It is racism in disguise and it serves quite effectively to give the very real grievances and rational emotions of the Negro population an outlet into irrationality, an escape from reality.

Moreover, if we inquire historically into the causes that are likely to transform the engagés into the enragés, it is not injustice that ranks first but hypocrisy. Its momentous role in the later stages of the French Revolution, when Robespierre’s war upon hypocrisy transformed the “despotism of liberty” into the Reign of Terror, is too well known to be repeated here; but it is important to remember that this war had been declared long before by the French moralists, who saw in hypocrisy the vice of all vices and found it the one ruling supreme in “good society,” which somewhat later was called bourgeois society.

There are not many authors of rank who glorified violence for violence’s sake; but these few—Sorel, Pareto, Fanon—were motivated by a much deeper hatred for bourgeois society and were led to a much more radical break with its moral standards than the conventional Left, which was chiefly inspired by compassion and a burning desire for justice. To tear the mask of hypocrisy from the face of the enemy, to unmask him, his devious machinations and manipulations that permit him to rule without using violent means, that is, to provoke action even at the risk of annihilation so that the truth may come out—these are still among the strongest motives in today’s violence on the campuses and in the streets. And this violence again is not irrational. Since men live in a world of appearances, hence depend upon manifestation, hypocrisy’s conceits—as distinguished from temporary ruses, followed by disclosure in due time—cannot be met with what is recognized as reasonable behavior. Words can be relied upon only so long as one is sure that their function is to reveal and not to conceal. It is the semblance of rationality, rather than the interests behind it, that provokes rage. To respond with reason when reason is used as a trap is not “rational”; just as to use a gun in self-defense is not “irrational.”

Although the effectiveness of violence, as I remarked before, does not depend on numbers—one machine-gunner can hold hundreds of well-organized people at bay—it is nonetheless the case that its most dangerously attractive features come to the fore in collective violence. It is perfectly true, as Fanon writes, that in military as well as revolutionary action “individualism is the first [value] to disappear”33 ; in its stead, we find a kind of group coherence which is more intensely felt and proves to be a much stronger, though less lasting, bond than all the varieties of friendship, civil or private:34 “the practice of violence binds men together as a whole, since each individual forms a violent link in the great chain, a part of the great organism of violence which has surged upward.” 35

These words of Fanon point to the well-known phenomenon of brotherhood on the battlefield, where often the noblest, most selfless deeds are daily occurrences. Of all equalizers, death seems to be the most potent one in the few extraordinary situations in which it is permitted to play a political role. The experience of death, whether the experience of dying or the inner awareness of one’s own mortality, is perhaps the most antipolitical experience there is, in so far as it is usually faced in complete loneliness and impotence, signifying that we shall leave the company of our fellow men and with it that being-together and acting in concert which make life worthwhile.

But death faced collectively and in action changes its countenance; now it is as though nothing is more likely to intensify our vitality than its proximity. Something we are usually hardly aware of, that our own death is accompanied by the potential immortality of the group to which we belong and, in the final analysis, of the species, moves into the center of our experience, and the result is that it is as though Life itself, the immortal life of the species, nourished as it were by the sempiternal dying of its individual members, is “surging upward,” is actualized in the practice of violence.

It would be wrong, I think, to speak here of mere emotions. What is important is that these experiences, whose elementary force is beyond doubt, have never found an institutional, political expression. No body politic I know of was ever founded on the equality before death and its actualization in violence,36 But it is undeniably true that the strong fraternal sentiments, engendered by collective violence, have misled many good people into the hope that a new community together with a “new man” will arise out of it. The hope is an illusion for the simple reason that no human relationship is more transitory than this kind of brotherhood, which can be actualized only under conditions of immediate danger to life.

This, however, is but one side of the matter. Fanon concludes his praising description of the experiences in the practice of violence by remarking that in this kind of struggle the people realize “that life is an unending contest,” that violence is an element of life. Doesn’t it follow that praise of life and praise of violence are the same? Sorel, at any rate, thought along these lines sixty years ago. The bourgeoisie, he argued, had lost the “energy” to play its role in the antagonism of classes; only if the proletariat could be persuaded to use violence in order to reaffirm class distinctions and awaken the fighting spirit of the bourgeoisie could Europe be saved.37

Hence long before Konrad Lorenz discovered the life-promoting function of aggressiveness in the animal kingdom, violence was praised as a manifestation of the life force, and specifically of its creativity. Sorel, inspired by Bergson’s élan vital, aimed at a philosophy of creativity designed for “producers” and polemically directed against the consumer society and its intellectuals; both groups, he felt, were parasites.

Fanon, who had an infinitely more intimate experience of the practice of violence than any of its other glorifiers, past or present, was greatly influenced by Sorel’s equation of violence, life and creativity, and we all know to what extent this old combination has survived in the rebellious state of mind of the new generation—their taste for violence again is accompanied by a glorification of life, and it frequently understands itself as the necessarily violent negation of everything that stands in the way of the will-to-live. And this seemingly so novel biological justification of violence is again not unconnected with the most pernicious elements in our oldest tradition of political thought. According to the traditional concept of power, which, as we saw, was equated with violence, power was expansionist by nature, it has, as de Jouvenel has argued, “an inner urge to grow,” it was creative because “the instinct of growth is proper to it.”38

Just as in the realm of organic life everything either grows or declines and dies, so in the realm of human affairs power supposedly can sustain itself only through expansion; otherwise it shrinks and dies. “That which stops growing begins to rot,” said a Russian in the entourage of Catherine the Great, “The people erect scaffolds, not as the moral punishment of despotism, but as the biological penalty for weakness” (my italics). Revolutions, therefore, we are told, were directed against the established powers “only to the outward view.” Their true “effect was to give Power a new vigor and poise, and to pull down the obstacles which had long obstructed its development.”39 When Fanon is speaking of the “creative madness” present in violent action, he is still thinking along the lines of this tradition.40

Nothing, I think, is more dangerous theoretically than this tradition of organic thought in political matters, in which power and violence are interpreted in biological terms. In the way these terms are understood today, life and life’s alleged creativity, are their common denominator so that the precedence of violence is justified on the ground of creativity. The organic metaphors with which our entire present discussion of these matters, especially the riots, is shot through—the notion of a “sick society,” of which the riots are symptoms as fever is a symptom of disease—can only promote violence in the end. Thus the debate between those who propose violent means to restore “law and order” and those who propose nonviolent reforms begins to sound ominously like a discussion between two physicians who debate the relative advantages of surgical as opposed to medical treatment of their patient. The sicker the patient is supposed to be, the more likely that the surgeon will have the last word.

Moreover, so long as we talk about these matters in non-political, biological ways, the glorifiers of violence will have the great advantage to appeal to the undeniable fact that, in the household of nature, destruction and creation are but two sides of the natural process, so that collective violent action, quite apart from its inherent attraction, may appear as natural a prerequisite for the collective life of mankind as the struggle for survival and violent death for the continuing life in the animal kingdom.

No doubt, the danger of being carried away by the deceptive plausibility of organic metaphors is particularly great where the racial issue is involved. Racism, white or black, is fraught with violence by definition because it objects to natural organic facts—a white or black skin—which no persuasion and no power can change; all one can do, when the chips are down, is to exterminate their bearers. Violence in interracial struggle is always murderous, but it is not “irrational”; it is the logical and rational consequence of racism, by which I do not mean some rather vague prejudices on either side but an explicit ideological system.

Prejudices, as distinguished from both interests and ideologies, may yield under the pressure of power—as we have seen during the years of a successful civil rights movement that was entirely nonviolent. But while boycotts, sit-ins, and demonstrations were adequate in eliminating discriminatory laws and ordinances, they proved utter failures and became counter-productive when confronted with social conditions—the stark needs of the black ghettos on one side, the overriding interests of the lower-income groups with respect to housing and education on the other. All this mode of action could do, and did, was to bring these conditions into the open, into the street, where the basic irreconcilability of interests was dangerously exposed.

But even today’s violence, black riots and the much greater potential violence of the white backlash, are not yet manifestations of racist ideologies and their murderous logic. The riots, as has recently been stated, are “articulate protests against genuine grievances”41 ; “indeed restraint and selectivity—or…rationality are certainly among [their] most crucial features.”42 And much the same is true for the backlash phenomena. It is not irrational for certain interest groups to protest furiously against being singled out to pay the full price for ill-designed integration policies whose consequences their authors can easily escape.43 The greatest danger is rather the other way round: since violence always needs justification, an escalation of the violence in the streets may bring about a truly racist ideology to justify it, in which case violence and riots may disappear from the streets and be transformed into the invisible terror of a police state.

Violence, being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end which must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, violence can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals. Violence does not promote causes, it promotes neither History nor Revolution, but it can indeed serve to dramatize grievances and to bring them to public attention. As Conor Cruise O’Brien once remarked, “Violence is sometimes needed for the voice of moderation to be heard.” And indeed, violence, contrary to what its prophets try to tell us, is a much more effective weapon of reformers than of revolutionists. (The often vehement denunciations of violence by Marxists did not spring from humane motives but from their awareness that revolutions are not the result of conspiracies and violent action.) France would not have received the most radical reform bill since Napoleon to change her antiquated education system without the riots of the French students, and no one would have dreamed of yielding to reforms of Columbia University without the riots during the spring term.

Still, the danger of the practice of violence, even if it moves consciously within a non-extremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will not merely be defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world.

Finally, the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant. The crucial feature in the students’ rebellions around the world is that they are directed everywhere against the ruling bureaucracy. This explains, what at first glance seems so disturbing, that the rebellions in the East demand precisely those freedoms of speech and thought that the young rebels in the West say they despise as irrelevant. Huge party machines have succeeded everywhere to overrule the voice of the citizens, even in countries where freedom of speech and association is still intact.

The dissenters and resisters in the East demand free speech and thought as the preliminary conditions for political action; the rebels in the West live under conditions where these preliminarics no longer open the channels for action, for the meaningful exercise of freedom. The transformation of government into administration, of republics into bureaucracies, and the disastrous shrinkage of the public realm that went with it, have a long and complicated history throughout the modern age; and this process has been considerably accelerated for the last hundred years through the rise of party bureaucracies.

What makes man a political being is his faculty to act. It enables him to get together with his peers, to act in concert, and to reach out for goals and enterprises which would never enter his mind, let alone the desires of his heart, had he not been given this gift—to embark upon something new. All the properties of creativity ascribed to life in manifestations of violence and power actually belong to the faculty of action. And I think it can be shown that no other human ability has suffered to such an extent by the Progress of the modern age.

For progress, as we have come to understand it, means growth, the relentless process of more and more, of bigger and bigger. The bigger a country becomes in population, in objects, and in possessions, the greater will be the need for administration and with it, the anonymous power of the administrators. Pavel Kohout, the Czech author, writing in the heyday of the Czech experiment with freedom, defined a “free citizen” as a “Citizen-Co-ruler.” He meant nothing else but the “participatory democracy” of which we have heard so much in recent years in the West. Kohout added that what the world, as it is today, stands in greatest need of may well be “a new example” if “the next thousand years are not to become an era of supercivilized monkeys.” 44

This new example will hardly be brought about by the practice of violence, although I am inclined to think that much of its present glorification is due to the severe frustration of the faculty of action in the modern world. It is simply true that the riots in the ghettos and the rebellions on the campuses make “people feel they are acting together in a way that they rarely can.”45 We don’t know if these occurrences are the beginnings of something new—the “new example”—or the death pangs of a faculty that mankind is about to lose. As things stand today, when we see how the super-powers are bogged down under the monstrous weight of their own bigness, it looks as though the “new example” will have a chance to arise, if at all, in a small country, or in small, well-defined sectors in the mass-societies of the large powers.

For the disintegration processes, which have become so manifest in recent years—the decay of many public services, of schools and police, of mail delivery and transportation, the death rate on the highways and the traffic problems in the cities—concern everything designed to serve mass society. Bigness is afflicted with vulnerability, and while no one can say with assurance where and when the breaking point has been reached, we can observe, almost to the point of measuring it, how strength and resiliency are insidiously destroyed, leaking, as it were, drop by drop from our institutions. And the same, I think, is true for the various party systems—the one-party dictatorships in the East as well as the two-party systems in England and the United States, or the multiple party systems in Europe—all of which were supposed to serve the political needs of modern mass societies, to make representative government possible where direct democracy would not do because “the room will not hold all” (John Selden).

Moreover, the recent rise of nationalism around the globe,, usually understood as a world-wide swing to the right, has now reached the point where it may threaten the oldest and best established nation states. The Scotch and the Welsh, the Bretons and the Provençals, ethnic groups whose successful assimilation had been the prerequisite for the rise of the nation state, are turning to separatism in rebellion against the centralized governments of London and Paris.

Again, we do not know where these developments will lead us, but we can see how cracks in the power structure of all but the small countries are opening and widening. And we know, or should know, that every decrease of power is an open invitation to violence—if only because those who hold power and feel it slipping from their hands have always found it difficult to resist the temptation of substituting violence for it.


The Technocratic Mind June 19, 1969

The Technocratic Mind June 19, 1969

  1. 33

    Fanon, op. cit., p. 47.

  2. 34

    J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, Harper Torchbook, is most perceptive and instructive on this point. It should be read by everyone interested in the practice of violence.

  3. 35

    Fanon, op. cit., p. 93.

  4. 36

    It is also noteworthy that death as an equalizer plays hardly any role in political philosophy, although human mortality—the fact that men are “mortals,” as the Greeks used to say—was understood as the strongest motive for political action in pre-philosophic political thought. It was the certainty of death that made men seek immortal fame in deed and word and that prompted them to establish a body politic which was potentially immortal. Hence, politics was precisely a means to escape from equality before death into a distinction which would assure some measure of deathlessness. Hobbes is the only political philosopher in whose work death in the form of fear of violent death plays a crucial role. But it is not equality before death that is decisive for Hobbes, but equality of ability to kill and the resulting equality of fear that persuades men in the state of nature to bind themselves into a Commonwealth.

  5. 37

    Sorel, op. cit., Ch. 2, “On Violence and the Decadence of the Middle Classes.”

  6. 38

    Jouvenel, op. cit., pp. 114 and 123 respectively.

  7. 39

    Ibid., pp. 187-88.

  8. 40

    Fanon, op. cit., p. 95.

  9. 41

    Robert M. Fogelson, “Violence as Protest,” in Urban Riots: Violence and Social Change, Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, Columbia University, 1968.

  10. 42

    Ibid. See also the excellent article, “Official Interpretation of Racial Riots” by Allan Silver in the same collection.

  11. 43

    Stewart Alsop in a perceptive column, “The Wallace Man,” in Newsweek, October 21, 1968, makes the point: “It may be illiberal of the Wallace man not to want to send his children to bad schools in the name of integration, but it is not at all unnatural. And it is not unnatural either for him to worry about the “molestation” of his wife, or about losing his equity in his house, which is all he has.” Alsop also quotes the most effective statement of George Wallace’s demagoguery: “There are 535 members of Congress and a lot of these liberals have children, too. You know how many send their kids to the public schools in Washington? Six.”

  12. 44

    See Günter Grass, Pavel Kohout, Briefe über die Grenze, Hamburg, 1968, pp. 88 and 90 respectively.

  13. 45

    Herbert J. Gans, “The Ghetto Rebellions and Urban Class Conflict,” in Urban Riots, op. cit.

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