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A Special Supplement: On Violence

There is much effective writing, both of a sociological and a political kind, on violence, especially social and political violence, in the United States; but some of it is depressingly sloganized and weakly rhetorical. Militant black leaders have often contributed excellent political analysis written in lively and uncorrupted English; and it is therefore depressing to find Eldridge Cleaver, for example, saying something so corny and untrue (however much he may wish it were true) as:

That white America could produce the assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King is looked upon by black people…as a final repudiation by white America of any hope of reconciliation, of any hope of change by peaceful and nonviolent means.9

A weakness of American political life has always been a tenderness toward empty rhetoric and it is hard to take seriously a black revolutionary who places himself so resolutely within this particular tradition. He will find predecessors in the pages of Martin Chuzzlewit, Messrs. Jefferson Brick and La Fayette Kettle. “The libation of freedom must be quaffed in blood,” to quote the former. The absurdity of such sentiments is not perceived in moments of excitement; and to suppose that “white America” produces anything is to be caught in the same muddle as those are in who say in 1970 that “we” imported African slaves into America or that “they” (the Negroes of the United States) look upon something or other as “a final repudiation.”

To give examples of useful writing on the topic of contemporary violence one has to go most frequently to historians, theologians, and philosophers. There is the famous piece by Miss Arendt that appeared first in these pages and is now expanded into a small book. Here is a splendid passage from it upon the point we have just mentioned.

We all know…that it has become rather fashionable among white liberals to react to Negro grievances with the cry, “We are all guilty,” and Black Power has proved only too happy to take advantage of this “confession” to instigate an irrational “black rage.” Where all are guilty, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits and the very magnitude of the crime the best excuse for doing nothing.10

Perhaps we ought to ask whether the work of social scientists has produced anything approaching a body of knowledge of service to the makers of policy. The desire simply to avoid violence is not a policy; but it would be useful if political leaders could be given some guide lines. It has to be said that, so far as I can discover, social science has not told us anything we did not already know. We know that people living in substandard housing, poorly paid or unemployed, and despised by more fortunate people, will have a tendency toward violent action, and that this will become plainer in the summer months for obvious reasons. (To speak of “a tendency” is perhaps no more than to say that when violent action occurs we are not surprised; we “understand.” One has also to wonder why the summers of 1968 and 1969 were in the ghettos so relatively peaceful.) But this is not much more complex than knowing prior to any detailed investigation that the consumption of soft drinks rises as the weather gets hotter.

So far as remedies go, it is extraordinary how complicated the sociologists and psychologists can get. The public ownership of all city land and a well-endowed and humanely organized public housing authority would probably do more for the turbulent masses of the inner city than all the reports and monographs that have been produced.

This is not the philistinism of an English empiricist. Henry Bienen, in his brilliant critical review of the current literature, writes: “For all the work done on revolutions, totalitarianism, insurgency, and counterinsurgency, there is no body of knowledge one would confidently recommend to American policy-makers who now confront violence in America and abroad.”11 A good deal has appeared since these words were written in 1968, but it seems unlikely that Mr. Bienen would wish to modify his judgment.


In all human institutions, the family, the State, the school, and in all great changes, there has been violence and we have absolutely no reason to suppose that violence will vanish if and as we become more ingenious. As we have seen, it is not always thought either problematic or undesirable; and there may even be about it a touch of the numinous, and its practice may be an occupation for the devout. But in many cases violence will have about it the mark of failure. Where violence occurs there has been negligence or stupidity or a failure of intelligence and will.

Even those who have thought that the State was poena et remedium peccati and have seen, as de Maistre did, the executioner as the guardian of civility have by this very formulation admitted that there is something accidental about political violence. Violence is strictly brutish in that it comes about through a falling away from what men have it in them to become, free and rational agents. Agreement in rationality, and fraternity, mark out the distinctively human community; in so far as social relations are determined by habit, passion, and force, they are in that degree less than human, if one may think of humanitas as a concept used to prescribe as well as to describe.

That we commonly do this without having anything mysterious in mind is plain if we reflect upon our use of such a term as “inhuman” applied to the conduct of men. A French woman doctor confined in Auschwitz and believing that none of those who had witnessed the medical experiments there carried out would be allowed to survive for long remarked to a fellow prisoner: “The only thing that is left for us is to behave, for the rest of the short time that is left to us, like human beings.” Nothing more stringent can be required of men.

Even the most stupid violence, even the violence which is understandable because it is a response to injustice or to a pointless deprivation—the violence and counter-violence that mark the ghetto and university riots, for example—illuminates our social institutions and provides an opportunity for improvement. But in itself violence, except accidentally, can have no good end if we are right in thinking it is necessarily connected with harm to men; for, as one of the shrewdest of the leaders of “the Movement” has put it, “Violence can contribute to shattering the status quo but only politics and organization can transform it.”12

This doctrine is not well received by all sections of the New Left, and the experience of Stalinism makes their suspicion intelligible. But the belief in spontaneity and total participation, the dislike of the principle of representation, cannot preserve society from the tyranny in which long periods of revolutionary convulsion end. At least, we have no historical grounds, and no grounds in what we know about our own societies, for supposing that a revolutionary movement which neglects considerations of power and organization, which exalts spontaneity, can end well.

It may end badly, even with intelligence and organizing skill; and this would perhaps be a reason not necessarily for putting up indefinitely with established styles of politics but for looking very carefully at the applicability of the idea of revolution to projected changes in Western industrial societies. Even in the United States, where the power of the military industrial complex is currently so great that it has tempted students to find its historical parallel in the role of industry and the army in the Weimar Republic (cf. Carl E. Schorske, “Weimar and the Intellectuals, I,” NYR, May 7, 1970), it is hard to believe that the pattern of political institutions and the reservoir of traditions are such that social revolution is a conceivable goal.

In Max Weber’s great essay, “Politics as a Vocation,” there is vividly expressed a standpoint opposed to the old view of the State as essentially “natural,” with the violence and coercion which it in fact practices being in principle eliminable. Certainly, it would follow from the old view that the greater the violence of political life, the less is it possible to discern what essentially marks the State; that it is the organization of a rational and cooperative life led in common by free agents. Weber writes as follows:

Whoever wants to engage in politics at all…lets himself in for the diabolic forces lurking in all violence. The great virtuosi of acosmic love of humanity and goodness, whether stemming from Nazareth or Assisi or from Indian royal castles, have not operated with the political means of violence. Their kingdom was “not of this world” and yet they worked and still work in this world. The figures of Platon Karatajev and the saints of Dostoievski still remain their most adequate reconstructions. He who seeks the salvation of the soul, of his own and of others, should not seek it along the avenues of politics, for the quite different tasks of politics can only be solved by violence.

The genius or demon of politics lives in an inner tension with the god of love, as well as with the Christian God as expressed by the church…. Everything that is striven for through political action operating with violent means and following an ethic of responsibility endangers the “salvation of the soul.” If, however, one chases after the ultimate good in a war of beliefs, following a pure ethic of absolute ends, then the goals may be damaged and discredited for generations, because responsibility for consequences is lacking…. 13

Weber’s thesis is both attractive and plausible. It offers an accurate account of how matters often seem to men engaged in the work of government, especially in times of war or of great internal repression. They do not put it this way explicitly and in public, for Weber’s position involves an ethical paradox, and paradox is a rough diet for the media and the public. The paradox is this. The man for whom politics is a calling is morally obliged to do that which is morally forbidden. He may qua statesman authorize lies, torture, the killing of the innocent, or at least courses of action that he knows beforehand may bring about such things. But since he is responsible for the general consequences of doing or not doing certain things he has to take upon himself the burden of evil on behalf of the rest of us; and since he must do this or cease to be a statesman, he may as well sin with vigor: the Lutheran background, with its radical pessimism about secular institutions and its distrust of rationality in ethics, is the setting within which we have to see Weber’s essay.

  1. 9

    Rose, p. 235.

  2. 10

    Arendt. pp. 33, 34.

  3. 11

    Bienen, pp. 102, 103.

  4. 12

    Tom Hayden, cited in Stephen Spender, The Year of the Young Rebels, 1969, p. 6.

  5. 13

    In Gerth and Wright Mills, From Max Weber, 1947, pp. 125, 126.

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