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A Special Supplement: On Violence

I

When, in Chapter 12 of Pride and Prejudice, Jane and Elizabeth Bennet return from their visit to Netherfield, their foolish sisters Catherine and Lydia have something to tell them of the soldiers garrisoned nearby.

Much had been done and much had been said in the regiment since the preceding Wednesday; several of the officers had dined lately with their uncle, a private had been flogged, and it had actually been hinted that Colonel Foster was going to be married.

What is here used by Jane Austen to bring out the brittleness of understanding and the lack of heart in uneducated young women of the minor gentry was taken as a matter of course even by the victims themselves. Humane officers would sometimes examine a man’s back before ordering a flogging; and if it was unscarred would commute the penalty. They were reluctant to break the man’s skin, just as men of pleasure who would sleep with any attractive woman offering herself would boast that they had never deflowered a virgin. But a man already scarred by the cat was fair game.

The agony, with the back torn open and the salt rubbed into the wounds, must have been indescribable. It was thought to be a sad necessity. Wellington was said in the peninsular campaign to have hanged and flogged the army into order.1 Frederick, Duke of York, a humane man rightly called “the soldier’s best friend,” sent out a confidential circular laying down that regimental courts-martial were not in sentencing to award more than 300 lashes.2

There were, of course, some commanding officers who never ordered the lash, and these were the most successful. One is reminded of old-fashioned boys’ schools in which incompetent masters in flogging their pupils merely increased the tumult that was the occasion for the punishment, whereas others could keep order and excite interest without raising their voices. But in the main those who professed to be shocked by the executions of Louis XVI and his Queen and wept over the September massacres took the flogging of common soldiers as a necessity of war, just as the dark side of that naval tradition represented with such radiance by Collingwood and Nelson was—the phrase is Winston Churchill’s—rum, buggery, and the lash.

In all periods what is taken to be unalterable, a part of the natural order, is not singled out as violence. Violence in the England of the Regency was something that showed itself in the actions of foreign revolutionaries or of poor people firing ricks or smashing machines. The bodily reality of violence used in defense of the social order is scarcely perceived by Catherine and Lydia, whereas we can be sure they would have been horrified by the least rumor of mob violence.

This is a kind of social myopia. It is just as prevalent today. There is no doubt that a murder committed, or believed to have been committed, by young men with long hair and necklaces will be thought to be in some way characteristic of a bizarre exterior and in some way a consequence of it; the vastly greater number of murders committed by criminals conventionally clothed and barbered will scarcely be noticed, so much are such murders a part of the familiar landscape. Mob violence and police violence are equally characteristic of some modern societies. But those who use the former phrase may well avoid the latter; and those who use the latter may be inclined to view even the roughest demonstration as a kind of Quaker meeting groundlessly assaulted by the police.

What counts as violence at a given time is very much a matter of the position and the angle of vision of members of particular social groups. But the difficulties in the way of giving a satisfactory account of the concept of violence are not to be found in the differing attitudes of social groups. Like most concepts employed both for descriptive and for evaluative purposes, violence has a complexity of use that makes it hard to describe it satisfactorily.

We might at first be inclined to guess that there is a necessary connection between the notions of violence and harm. This is borne out by the New English Dictionary’s definition: “the exercise of physical force so as to inflict injury on, or cause damage to, persons or property.” A Martian visitor might be unable to pick out violence if he took it to be a neutral descriptive term. He would be unable to distinguish physical torture from a surgical operation. But it would seem absurd to characterize an appendectomy as a piece of violence, even if for some reason no anaesthetic were given. For a set of actions to fall under the concept of violence it would seem necessary that they should be harmful. Even those who would justify flogging or torture on such grounds as that it is a remedy for vice (in the case of flogging) or necessary to extract information from an enemy (in the case of torture) would not deny that human harm is involved. It would presumably be argued that notwithstanding the harm involved, in these cases, though not in general, violence is justified.

But that flogging or torture is a case of violence means that the practice stands in need of special justification; ordinarily, since harm to human beings is involved, to do that to a man’s body which hurts him or incapacitates him in some respect is wrong; and this is also true of damage to houses, tools, works of art, and so on, that is, to anything that men find useful or delightful. It is also true that even when a particular act of violence would bring about something men might find good we do not think it is necessarily justified. Castration is not justified by the peculiar beauty of the male soprano’s voice; the destruction of a poor man’s house is not justified by the straightness of the highway the destruction makes possible.

But there is another sense of violence, one that comes into the language very early, that has a more specialized descriptive sense and, sometimes, a commendatory sense as well. “Mark me with what violence she first loved the Moor,” says Iago. Here the connection with harm, if it exists, is very obscure. Instead, we have the idea that violence is a characteristic of a natural energy, something that overflows the bounds of institutions and habits, canons of behavior and rules of etiquette. Violence belongs to what is spontaneous and powerful; and since the spontaneity is that of nature (Edmund in Lear is pre-eminently a violent character) it is both something terrible and dangerous and, at the same time, a source of life, sacred, a refreshment.

There are two ways in which a man may lack violence in this sense: by mastering his passions; and by having weak passions. In the former case the working of the passions contributes to the fineness of his temper; in the latter case the weakness of his native energies lowers his value. That the violent processes of nature are sources of strength and creativity, as well as of destruction, gives the idea of violence a certain fascination; for what promises to fortify and enrich our existence promises also to destroy it. We need only think of what is central to so much European literature, the theme of guilty passion, to see the ambiguity of this notion of violence. Those who are possessed by such a passion end as Anna Karenina ends; but those who through fear or lack of opportunity are never so possessed are haunted by the thought that it is just this shattering experience which alone justifies human life.

The violence of that life which pulsates beneath the civilized skin is a source of health. When the violence goes, the man is dead. Of course, violence conceived as belonging to the wild energies of nature may be given an institutional form without losing its sacred and horrific character. Institutionalized violence is most often encountered in the forms of warfare and of other penal activities of the State. In the former case human morality is either transcended or not reached. “The violence of war admits of no distinction” (Johnson, in Rasselas).

Whatever has violence in this sense breaks or goes beyond or disregards rules. There is something of this in many very ordinary expressions: we speak of violent headaches, violent colors, violent emotions, violent storms, violent protestations. The ghost of a norm or a canon is present here, certainly in the case of colors, and violent protestations (often with justification) go beyond the rules of civilized conversation, violent emotions disturb the harmony that has ever since Plato and the Stoics been taken to constitute psychic health. A violent headache may be a metaphorical use; and yet there is that about the intense throbbing that links it with the violence of a torrent or of a confined but untamed animal hurling itself against the bars of its cage.

Violence, then, is centrally tied to the notion of human harm and commonly stands in need of some justification, since it would seem absurd to advocate the harming of human beings. There are cases in which violent actions are a matter of policy and in such cases it may be argued that notwithstanding the harm involved the great good the actions in question are calculated to bring about outweighs the harm. I have given the examples of flogging and torture, two things which belong by convention or edict to most legal systems throughout history.

In our time the most interesting examples are offered by warfare, no longer warfare between states more or less equal in power, but war by great industrial states against very primitive states sustained on a meager scale by industrial states standing outside the conflict. The two obvious examples are the war in Vietnam, where the technical sophistication of the forms of violence used, the poisoning of crops, defoliants, lethal concentrations of CS gas, napalm, fragmentation bombing, and the rest have no historical parallel, and the Israeli war on the Arab states.

I am not here discussing how far such wars are justifiable, and I do not wish to suggest that from all points of view the two cases are parallel. But they are both cases of the kind of violence that vast superiority in technology makes possible. They also tell us that the violence that would mark a war between two or more advanced industrial states is virtually unimaginable; and it is of course widely believed that the prospect of such violence provides a guarantee against the outbreak of a war of this kind. This is a comforting thought for a European or a citizen of the United States, since if it is right it means that he will not be the recipient of this kind of 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.

II

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.

All the same, there is a plain contrast between what may be described as commonplace violence, the rapes, murders, assaults that are present in some degree in all civilized societies and may, as we have suggested, be illustrations of the possibilities created by civilization, and those great acts of violence—armed rebellions, large-scale riots, the savage repression of strikes or demonstrations (Bloody Sunday in Petersburg, the Sharpeville massacre of 1960)—that often seem the enigmatic symbols of some great principle. If only we could understand these, we say to ourselves, if only we could uncover the logic of such events, we should be able to grasp truths about human life that, once known, would not indeed eliminate the tragic from our experience but would make it more bearable and perhaps shift its field from the social to the cosmic.

This is what historical materialism would do if it were a genuine hypothesis; and, to take a different doctrine but one that is open to precisely the same logical objections, how satisfying it would be if we could see in all rebellions against authority, especially those designed to injure or kill its representatives, the primal rage against the father, Zeus at his deadly work with Kronos, who is in his own youth the slayer of his father Ouranos—Ouranos, both son and husband of Gaea, the earth goddess.

One of the hardest things for the student (as distinct from the agent or patient) of violence to accept is the appearance it often has of irrationality. This is not always the case. The killing of the adulterer or the seducer of the innocent in southern Italy or Greece is a perfectly rational procedure. We understand it, as it were, from within; we see the point of what is done and we understand, even if we don’t share, the system of honor which requires such killings. But if a man were to murder his wife’s lover and then show plainly by his conduct that his chief concern after the killing was that he had spilled blood on his new trousers, we should be puzzled, unable to understand the act from within.

Mob violence is often like this. The Gordon riots, for example, are on the surface utterly puzzling, for what was the Pope to the London mob of 1780? Of course, that we find a set of human actions puzzling doesn’t mean that we believe them to be unintelligible. But the apparent lack of rationality provokes us to frame hypotheses scientific in character. We don’t need such hypotheses to account for why a man writes a letter or gets his boots soled; but we do need some hypothesis to account for the movements of St. Vitus’s Dance. If we get one, then the convulsive movements of the disease become intelligible, though not in the way intentional acts are intelligible.

Now there seems to be that about violent action on a large scale which is closer to St. Vitus’s Dance than to the act of writing a letter. This is how the internal social violence of contemporary America is taken by the sociologists; and this is not surprising since it is the belief of many sociologists that macroscopic social phenomena are a subject matter demanding explanatory hypotheses of the scientific kind. The vast output of sociological studies of violence is an index not only of social concern but also of a deep conviction that here are a challenge to and a justification of the claims of sociology to be a science. Further, social violence (apart from the violence of the established authorities in waging war) is treated as a pathological sign.6 This is natural enough; but it indicates that the student is working from within a set of beliefs according to which change is desirable and peaceful change the norm which is violated by the ghetto or university riot. This tells us more about the students of violence than it does about its perpetrators.

Most of the material on violence collected by the sociologist is in one way invaluable in that it tells us something about the incidence of violence in our society and about its forms and its authors. In this the work is not fundamentally different from that of the historian, though it is often phrased in a disabling jargon. The explanatory hypotheses are another matter. Either they presuppose what is not plainly the case, and what ought to be argued, that the human actions which constitute violence are the outcome of social “forces” analogous to the moving particles and the magnetic fields of physics and are not intentional, distinctively human actions at all; or they are simply common sense dressed up in the language of sociology (or clinical psychology).

The former raises fundamental questions about the methodology of the social sciences. All that need be said here is that the best examples produced so far are the rather frugal hypotheses instanced by Professor Popper in the course of his polemic against historicism. Examples are: “You cannot introduce agricultural tariffs and at the same time reduce the cost of living”; “You cannot have a centrally planned society with a price system that fulfills the main functions of competitive prices”; “You cannot make a successful revolution if the ruling class is not weakened by internal dissension or defeat in war”; and the like. Such commonsensical hypotheses presuppose that we are concerned with human action in which the agents pay attention to rational criteria, and not with pathological phenomena. Much of what the sociologists say has regard to hypotheses of this kind, and their conclusions are acceptable despite the apparatus of argument they attach to them.

Professor T. R. Gurr provides us with a rich example. In Why Men Rebel he begins a chapter entitled “Relative Deprivation and the Impetus to Violence” as follows:

Beneath the complexity of human motivation neuro-physiologists have identified two great “appetitive systems” that provide the motivating feelings against which everything that happens to us is measured and judged [sic]. Stimulation of one of these systems provides our feelings of elation, satisfaction, and love. Stimulation of the other leads to sensations of anxiety, terror, depression, and rage. These feelings color our perceptions of the world and energize our actions. Learning is based on these appetitive systems, first directly, then indirectly: we learn to do and to seek out those things that bring satisfaction, and to avoid those that have noxious effects. 7

The passage scarcely needs to be glossed. The model of human motivation to be used is clear and the idea of human rationality entertained is shown by the strange account of what it is for a man to judge what happens to him. But at the end of a long chapter in which this initial position is developed according to such concepts as “tension,” “response,” “aggression,” “values,” “goals.” and so on (including a delightful reference, sadly not expanded, to twelve “viscerogenic” and twenty-eight “psychogenic” needs), Professor Gurr concludes thus:

If any single sentence can summarize the arguments advanced in this chapter, it is that men are quick to aspire beyond their social means and quick to anger when those means prove inadequate, but slow to accept their limitations.8

This is splendid and is cast in language appropriate to the study of human actions. Far from being a summary of what has gone before, it represents a shift from a model which would do just as well for the study of the behavior of rats to the model of human behavior presupposed in our ordinary discourse about it. The former model carries with it the idea that education is manipulation and it is an appropriate model for a servile society.

If we look at the comments of those who are politically concerned and in some way connected with radical movements that may issue in violence, these turn out to be crisper but are sometimes vacuous or stupid. In the interesting collection of essays entitled Violence in America I find the following remarks, all of them depressingly typical of much that is spoken or written by men who work for causes of which one in general approves and who often show immense devotion to these causes. “Violence of the oppressed is directly proportionate to the violence exercised by their oppressors” (p. 46). It is not quite clear from the context in which this remark occurs whether or not it is intended as a historical generalization. It may be intended only to apply to mass violence in the American city during the past decade. Even if this is so, and even if there were a satisfactory convention for quantifying violence, it is only sometimes true that mass violence is triggered off by corresponding police violence, that large-scale police violence is a response to mass violence.

But notoriously it isn’t always like this. A trivial police action may trigger off a strong response; and a powerful police action may provoke no overt response. Or take the following, all gathered from Professor Staughton Lynd’s self-indulgent “A Radical speaks in defense of SNCC.” “In the Deep South the prima facie case that whites have imposed on blacks a ‘law and order’ expressive only of the wants of whites is overwhelming” (p. 225). Why the hesitant prima facie? It is like saying that prima facie there is evidence for the killing of Jews by the Nazis.

…”the Movement” [i.e., SNCC and SDS] prefers to make its decisions by consensus, not by delegating decision-making authority to representatives. Again, in contrast to the sharp distinction in liberal democratic theory between thought and action, the Movement places a high premium on “putting your body where your mouth is,” which is to say, acting on what you believe. It should be easy enough for any moderately sympathetic listener to extrapolate these clues into a sketch of future institutions. [pp. 226, 227]

The present reader is certainly moderately sympathetic but the only institutions he can extrapolate these clues into are scarcely defensible by anyone of Professor Lynd’s views. If decisions in a very complex society cannot be made by representatives, then it is certain that a vast amount of time must be set aside for continuous discussion; but there must then be other persons not parties to the discussion who keep the sanitation working, provide supplies of paper, chalk, ink, light, heat, soft drinks, hamburgers, tobacco, and whatever else is necessary to keep the discussion going. This is a fantasy of university students and their more simple-minded teachers and can only be entertained in a rich society in which the necessities and luxuries of life are, as it were, provided by an invisible hand. Professor Lynd is a scholar and he injures the radical movement by providing it with this fustian apologia.

There is indeed a problem it would have been useful for him to have looked at in more detail. The organization of representation in liberal societies is sustained by highly organized parties and this may mean that the very process of representation removes from the voters any clearly felt and understood control over the representatives. Radical students, many of whom come to be professionally concerned with the study of this problem, are right to be anxious about this; but the continuous assembly of the student body can obscure the problem and is occasionally a somewhat cynical exercise in those very arts of party management against which the protest is directed; the revolutionary minority may wear down the mass of students until the numbers present decline to the point at which a vote can safely be taken. Where intense political feeling continuously possesses the body of students, as in recent weeks, such artful procedures are neither necessary nor relevant.

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.

III

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.

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

  1. 1

    The Diary of Sir John Moore edited by J. F. Maurice, 1904, vol. ii, p. 362.

  2. 2

    J. W. Fortescue, A History of the British Army, vol. xi, 1923, p. 28.

  3. 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.

  4. 4

    Graham and Gurr, p. 470.

  5. 5

    Ibid., p. 487.

  6. 6

    Cf. Bienen, pp. 6, 10, 11.

  7. 7

    Gurr, p. 20.

  8. 8

    Ibid., p. 44.

  9. 9

    Rose, p. 235.

  10. 10

    Arendt. pp. 33, 34.

  11. 11

    Bienen, pp. 102, 103.

  12. 12

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

  13. 13

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

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