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A Special Supplement: On Violence

Quite often the two senses of violence cannot be kept apart, and it may be argued, and frequently has been argued by the ideologues of the right and, now, in our own day and for the first time, by ideologues of the left—Fanon and Sartre and their epigones in the Western world are examples—that the violence of war, civil and national, is a desirable catharsis. (It is true they were anticipated on the left by Sorel; but it is interesting that until the day before yesterday Sorel was execrated by the left for just this reason. Indeed, he is sometimes classified as a man of the right; his influence on Mussolini is remembered and his homage to Lenin forgotten.) It is recognized that immense harm to human beings comes from revolutionary or counterrevolutionary violence; but this doesn’t matter, either because the victims of revolutionary terror are mere human dust or the victims of counterrevolutionary terror are canaille, common criminals and lumpen proletarians.

In a way, Marx and Engels are closer to the counterrevolutionaries of their day than they are to the admirers of Genet and the believers in the revolutionary potential of bohemia. In this respect, at least, the orthodox Communists are Marxist in spirit. The French Communist Party looked upon the student revolutionaries in 1968 and shuddered; and chose to come to terms with the Gaullist regime rather than try for power in such company.

There is an archaic verb, “to violence.” This is more or less the equivalent of our verb “to violate.” There is thus a further shade of meaning to be added to those already given. Attacks upon property and upon white womanhood are pre-eminently what many users of the term violence have in mind. Such people may not, if driven against the wall, deny that the Chicago police riot at the time of the Democratic Convention and the dropping of napalm upon peasant villages are cases of violence, though they will tend to justify them in the way the English middle classes would have justified Wellington’s hanging and flogging the army into order.

What seems to these people to be truly violence is rioting in the ghettos or the shooting of a policeman by Black Panthers, not so much because such acts are especially costly in blood and treasure but because they are taken symbolically—and perhaps rightly taken—as attacks upon a way of life cherished in reality or in fantasy by most people in the United States. Even here the attitude may not be all that straightforward. Men take pleasure, as tabloid newspapers, pulp novels, and, increasingly, avant-garde fictions show, in the thought or the representation of what they count as most horrible. It is not Freud’s discovery that there is that in us which is bloody and shameless, so bloody and so shameless that it hides in dreams (cf. Plato’s Republic, 571, 572); and we remember Lear’s

Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!
Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back;
Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind
For which thou whipst her.

Complex, multiple in its uses, that which characterizes what is harmful to men and their possessions, an index of what is terrible or desirable or both, a necessary aspect of that which creates, refreshes, and purges: violence is not so much a central feature of our time, or of all human history—a perpetual accompaniment of life in all societies from the family to the State, though it is all these things—as, rather, one aspect of the problem (though there may be an absurdity in speaking of “problem” here) of what it is to be human, of how, given the steady pattern of human needs, we are to create, maintain, or extend civility. For where there is violence there is that much less civility, and where there is a great deal of violence civility tends to vanish.

Civility is not the same thing as justice. The goods of civility are what Hobbes took them to be: the sociability which is made possible by the general reliability of those with whom one lives (men are predictable in their daily lives and keep their promises and don’t lie too much), literature, history, and the arts (“account of time, and letters,” says Hobbes), the cultivation of the earth with the enjoyment of its fruits, technology applied to making us comfortable and delighting the senses, and so on. All these things are historically compatible with such unjust institutions as chattel slavery, with unjust processes such as the proletarianization of peasants and craftsmen, with religious humbug and superstition (the Mormons of Utah were makers of civility), and with the perpetual violence of foreign war (Athens between 431 and 404 B.C. and France in the seventeenth century), and with much else we should today think objectionable.

But Hobbes was right in seeing violence beyond a certain point as both the sign and the cause of the breakdown of civility. In our own day the ability to provide the goods that go with civility is beyond question in the industrialized countries and is not much affected by such ordinary natural catastrophes as floods and the failure of a particular harvest, and we can also hope to provide an access to these goods with greater equity than at any earlier period. Yet it is at precisely this moment, both in the metropolitan countries and in the relatively underdeveloped countries, that violence in many forms causes us to question the staying power and the moral value of that civility which exists alongside injustice.


Our self-consciousness about violence could not be more intense. Not a week passes without the appearance of the report of a commission or of a sociological or historical or psychological study of individual and collective violence or what is taken to be such. How much violence is there really now as compared with the past; are the cities of the North more or less violent than the rural areas of the Deep South; can we pick out the violent personality by considering the family system and the environment of those who do violence or by looking at human conduct through the glass of the ancient myths of Oedipus and Electra; is the violence of the Negro ghettos similar in scale and causation to the violence of the now dissolved Irish ghettos; is violence in social life a relic of the procedures of a pioneering society without a settled system of laws; can we predict—and thus take avoiding action—just those social factors that in combination bring about the race riot, the gang war, the violence of teen-agers, the enterprises of Weathermen, the actions of the police of Alameda County or Chicago or Jackson, Mississippi, or the behavior of the National Guard at Kent State?

Such are the questions asked and answered by journalists, by university professors, by politicians, by churchmen, by men sitting in country clubs or bars. The air is loud with discussion, the bookshelves bend under their load, the presses turn faster, the great foundations spend ever larger sums on research into the facts about violence and the remedies for it.3

One thing seems plain from all the studies of violence that look at its history in America. It has always seemed that the violence of the present was unexpected and, in a sense, undeserved, and it was always thought that present violence contrasted with how things used to be, when it was always peaceful or when such violence as there was had been administered by good men for good causes. Again, it seems often to be the case that whether within a given period there has been an increase or a decline in violence is extraordinarily hard to determine. The statistical material is suspect for a variety of reasons. The conventions in accordance with which violent crime is recorded by the police fluctuate, and even what counts as a crime worth notice may vary from time to time and place to place.

In a deeper sense what counts as a crime rests upon conventions. Traffic accidents, even when they spring from carelessness or malice, will rarely get into the crime statistics though we might take them as paradigm cases of human violence. The platitude that crime is committed largely by those who are poor or not white has a sour truth about it. Statistics need a lot of interpretation. There is sometimes a popular belief, given the status of common sense, that certain crimes are increasing when in fact they are declining. Analysis seems to show that between 1849 and 1951 the crime rate in Massachusetts dropped, so far as the more serious common-law crimes were concerned, by two-thirds.4

Indeed, there is some reason to believe that this figure underestimates the drop in the rate. But the impression of the average respectable citizen of Boston in 1951 in no way corresponded to the facts of the situation. There has even been some doubt over whether the popular belief that violent crime had in recent years increased rapidly in the United States had any serious foundation. “The President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, reporting in 1967, could not say after an eighteen-month study if the crime rate is higher than it has been before, or if Americans have become more criminal than their counterparts in earlier times.”5 And many will remember Attorney General Clark’s electoral gaffe when he said in 1968 that “there is no wave of crime in this country.”

But what we may call ordinary crime, murder, theft, assault, drunkenness, blackmail, rape, prostitution, and the rest, has to increase on a vast scale for it to be seriously thought that civility is imperiled. Indeed, such crimes are to be associated with civility. Primitive peoples where custom is king may live tranquil lives, and the uncommon criminal may die of horror at what he has done. It is when the cake of custom is broken and we enter into a period of inventiveness and social change that violent crime, along with moral heroism and fine art and scholarship and war, becomes a part of the veined and scarred tissue of civilized life. It is true, civility may die of that which it occasions and makes possible, and we may point to instances: the German lands during the Thirty Years War, Spain during the rising against the French—something never to be forgotten, for a witness to civility, Goya, was there and depicted the savagery that accompanies civility’s decay.

The line between criminal and other violence is hard to draw. Whenever violence occurs on a notable scale in a civilized community—even when it is the violence of the public authorities that is in question—it is always possible to raise the issue of the possible criminality of the violence. This is so because it is a part of the idea of civility that the order of society is maintained by consent and force, so that the very appearance of violence is a sign of something wrong and thus, since it is violence we are concerned with, of what, if it is chosen by men, may be morally if not legally criminal. The very force that maintains the order of civility trembles on the edge of criminal violence. What are states, says Saint Augustine, but bands of robbers…without justice? And he goes on to add that bands of robbers themselves constitute a kind of state. There is something ambiguous about the civil enterprise itself. Its roots may lie in violence and its incapacities show themselves in the violence of those who rule.

  1. 3

    Here is a selection of recent work. The History of Violence in America edited by Hugh Davis Graham and Ted Robert Gurr, Praeger, 822 pp., $11.95; Violence and Social Change by Henry Bienen, University of Chicago Press, 119 pp., $4.50; Violence in America edited by Thomas Rose, Random House, 380 pp., $7.95; On Violence by Hannah Arendt, Harcourt, Brace & World, 106 pp., $4.75, $1.65 (paper); Rebels in Eden by Richard E. Rubenstein, Little, Brown, 201 pp., $5.95; Violent Men by Hans H. Toch, Aldine Publishing Company, 268 pp., $7.50; Political Violence: the Behavioral Process by H. L. Nieburg, St Martin’s Press, 184 pp., $5.95; Violence and Reason by Howard Mumford Jones, Atheneum, 237 pp., $6.95; Racial Violence in the United States edited by Allen D. Grimshaw, Aldine Publishing Company, 553 pp., $12.75; Why Men Rebel by Ted Robert Gurr, Princeton University Press, 421 pp., $12.50; Violence by Jaques Ellul, translated by Cecelia Gaul Kings. Seabury Press, 179 pp., $4.95; A Critique of Violence by Andrea Caffi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal, Bobbs-Merrill, 220 pp., $8.50.

  2. 4

    Graham and Gurr, p. 470.

  3. 5

    Ibid., p. 487.

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