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A Special Supplement: On Violence

Responsibility for consequences: here is the center of Weber’s position. It implies that it is the business of statesmen to have regard to the general and distant consequences of what they do. A statesman may have some natural revulsion from, say, a massacre of civilians (for example, the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki); but he sets this aside and stiffens his resolution for the sake of what he takes to be the general consequences of the horrid deed. Of course, what these general consequences will be he doesn’t commonly claim to know intuitively, though there have been those, Cromwell and Hitler, for example, who have made this claim, but he has the reports of his intelligence services to go upon, the advice of his specialists in diplomacy, and—best of all, if he can get it—an assurance from those who know that the great movement of history is on his side. (The modern statesman no longer consults his astrologers; but he has at his disposal those who profess to foretell the future through models of conflict-situations, applications of the theory of games to these situations, and the like. On the whole, one prefers the astrologers.)

Weber’s ethic of responsibility is a chimera. It rests upon what cannot be the case, namely, that we should know the consequences of our actions. We know that this cannot be so. We know what, other things being equal, an intervention in a closed natural system will bring about. But the field of human action is radically misunderstood if we perceive it in the light of such a model. We simply do not know what the result will be of an assassination, of a decision to move troops from this area to that, of a decision to sponsor an insurrection.

This does not mean there cannot be prudence in politics, but this will show itself in caution and skepticism, in a concern with the quality of the immediately attainable, in a regard for such virtues as justice and veracity even in situations where there seems to be no immediate profit. Perhaps most of all in such situations, for it is here that attachment to virtue shows itself most clearly. “That which gives to humane actions the relish of Justice, is a certain Noblenesse or Gallantnesse of courage (rarely found), by which a man scorns to be beholding for the contentment of his life, to fraud, or breach of promise. This Justice of the Manners, is that which is meant, where Justice is called a Vertue, and Injustice a Vice.”

It may seem strange to some that we should go to Thomas Hobbes for a moral lesson. It is true he also said that force and fraud were in war the two cardinal virtues, but we know what he thought of the state of war and of human life within it. We know what statesmen hope for when they engage in adventures or set traps for their enemies; but we also know that what they will get is something neither they nor anyone else could have predicted. Never before in history have statesmen been so hubristic as they are today; and never has hubris been so swiftly punished. Commonly the punishment for hubris falls not upon the leaders, but upon their people.

The entire Vietnam adventure since its beginning dreadfully illustrates the truth of this. Or consider the fruits of the policy of “unconditional surrender” sustained by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin: West Germany with a developed heavy industry and old Wehrmacht generals at the head of its army; and the German People’s Republic, a cruel and shabby regime; and Europe haunted not by the specter of Communism but, as the Poles and the Czechs know so well, by the ghost of Rapallo. Weber’s portrait of the statesman faithful to his calling who violates ordinary morality for the sake of the common welfare is full of bad pathos. It is not true that the exercise of violence is the essential function of the State; there is a confusion here between violence and force, as Miss Arendt has explained. Violence is a sign that the political community has lost its proper powers.

In the past civility and injustice seem to have been compatible. From time to time violence would appear as a kind of punishment for injustice. But it was commonly a violence that could be contained. Now, as I have already suggested, “both in the metropolitan countries and in the relatively undeveloped countries…violence in many forms causes us to question the staying power and the moral value of that civility which exists alongside injustice.”

We can give many reasons for this conjecture. The world tends toward interdependence of science, economics, and culture. The more particular states try to keep themselves and their affairs behind high walls, the more this very action contributes to a general crisis in which they are implicated. Nothing can be kept in a corner away from the general scrutiny. A Negro done to death in Mississippi, a Jew of talent made into a social pariah in the Soviet Union, an insurrection in Brazil, the torturing of men in a South African prison, the dismissal of a cardinal, the discovery of a new drug or surgical procedure, the news of all these runs swiftly round the world and feeds the desire for rapid change. If to this we add the effect of the natural sciences and of technological developments, we see a world in what appears to be constant flux; and within such a flux the minimum conditions for civility seem hard to maintain or construct.

In the flux which we enter after we leave the womb, the first period of self-consciousness produces that ineffable expression of need I want! I want! Such willfulness is cured by the establishment of habits through our incorporation into institutions and our induction into a cultural tradition, hitherto one in which there has been a set of moral and intellectual paradigms. But if the institutions and traditions themselves become a part of the flux and if the paradigms are perpetually discarded, there is a tendency for something analogous to the infantile situation to come about. The world of human action in which the moral and intellectual paradigms are mediated to us through the language (how else could we consider “violence” and “harm”?) is replaced by the warm volitional world of I want! I want!

One should not make too much of this. Most radical political movements among Negroes and young people are eminently rational even where they are misdirected and they plainly lean heavily upon a set of traditions, often mingled in curious ways: Marxism, Jeffersonian democracy, Christianity, Hindu nonviolence, and so on. But there are some signs of change. The cult of spontaneity and the vogue of such writers as Marcuse and Norman O. Brown and the apocalyptic McLuhan, all these and other phenomena have infantile aspects. (It could be argued that this ought to be welcomed; but I think there may be some intellectual confusion of a self-stultifying sort in supposing that one could argue the claims of such positions.) Even the fashionable terminology of such cults is not unlike young children crying with delight or in pain.

If the entire social world could dissolve into spontaneity, if we could all at once care only for the pleasures of a polymorphous sexuality, if we could strike off the chains of logic and transcend the limits placed upon human desires by the absolute scarcity of material resources, then (I suppose) there might be some faint reason for choosing to support revolution on the infantile model. But none of this can happen. The belief in such possibilities is a debilitating fantasy. And it is linked with violence: a violence analogous to that of the frustrated child and the enraged parent. Policemen who beat up, maim, and even kill demonstrators are obviously wrong, no matter what the provocation. But it is an error to suppose that cries of “Pig!” accompanied by obscenities are ground in a compelling political analysis and give a foretaste of an intelligible political program.

Infantile politics (let us remember that it was Lenin who called an ultra-left position in the revolutionary politics of his day “an infantile disorder”) may in fact be designed to provoke violence in the belief that such confrontations bring forward the day of emancipation. One is reminded of poor Heinz Neumann, done to death in a Soviet prison, who, maddened by the bureaucratic passivity of the German Communist party in 1932, coined the slogan: Strike the Fascists whenever you meet them! He really believed this was the way to actualize the revolutionary potential of the German proletariat.

It is not altogether surprising that the universities of all countries should have been caught up in the flux of our world. Turbulence was a mark of the universities in their beginnings—the world in which Church and State clashed continually and the rediscovered work of Aristotle was an intoxication must have seemed a flux—and, except in their long periods of torpor when they have lived subdued beneath the throne and the altar, they have been the jangling nerve ends of society. It is also not surprising that in the Western world university students should grope after the Messianic role that in the theological scheme of Marxism belongs to the proletariat. If salvation will not come from the workers, perhaps it will come from the students allied with the world’s despised and rejected people, the Negroes in the United States, the colonial peoples in the third world.

Alas, the notion that within society there is a group with a Messianic task died with the falsification of Marx’s hypothesis; and it is perhaps a duty for those who by profession give themselves to scholarship and dialectic to know this. Universities are often distorted by the pressures of military, economic, and political interests, and a few may be totally corrupted. But as a whole, in the United States and Western Europe (and in the people’s democracies, too, as the brief Czech renaissance showed), the universities remain enclaves of civility. To invite the violence that comes from the injustices of our society to enter the world of the university is a piece of folly; for the university is capable in some degree of that impassioned detachment from which cures for some of our injustices may be hoped for. The political task remains; and every abandonment by the university of its critical role coarsens the perceptions of those who work in politics. When violence enters the university uninvited this has to be endured and met. At least, it will be clear that the city has not been betrayed by its inhabitants.

It has often seemed a weakness of non-Marxist thinkers on the left that they have no general program, as distinct from a collection of particular ad hoc programs, for the reshaping of society. The contrast implied scarcely exists. Marx himself thought belief in a program outlined in advance a relic of utopian thinking. The revolution would bring about a change in the distribution of social power; and the particular problems about how to organize society on the far side of revolution had to be left to those who would then hold power. There was something like a historical guarantee that a change in class relations would necessarily be accompanied by happy changes in social institutions. Confidence in the historical guarantee has now gone, together with the myth of the revolutionary proletariat. It is clear that Marxist parties in power lurch from one expedient to another in a convulsive effort to meet unforeseen difficulties; in this respect they are not superior to the bourgeois parties.

If taking short views and a modesty about the predictive powers of men in politics are inevitable, then moral requirements ought not to be subordinate to long-term aims. We are much more certain that we ought to tell the truth and ought not to kill the innocent than we are of the predictive power of the domino theory applied to Southeast Asia. Perhaps we ought to count among our primitive certainties the conviction that violence diminishes the humanity of those who resort to it, though the violence of the weak and the oppressed is bound to engage our sympathies, especially when it is in response to the violence of the strong. That the consequences of violence are sometimes happy is a grace of fate and not an illustration of the wisdom of the violent.

Letters

Violence & Civility September 24, 1970

Violence & Civility September 24, 1970

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