African Hitler

Terror and Resistance

by E.V. Walter
Oxford, 385 pp., $8.50

This book, or something very like it, was accepted for publication about six years ago, and its final, long-delayed appearance is welcome. It is a study of despotic rule by terror and violence, a form of government all too familiar both from the pages of history and the newspapers of our own time. It is a topic which, in recent times at any rate, has received surprisingly little attention from the academic analysts of political thought. On a world scale there have been many famous writers—Kautilya, Han Fei Tzu, Machiavelli, von Clausewitz, to name but a few—who have taken it for granted that a ruler is one who aims at total domination and that he is subject to no moral constraints of any kind. Even Max Weber, the prophet of rational legality, made a point of expanding Trotsky’s formula, “Every state is founded on force (Gewalt)” into “Every state claims for itself the legitimate monopoly of physical violence (Gewaltsamkeit).”

But our softer Western writers, with their utilitarian notions of social contract and of a general will motivated to achieve the greatest happiness of the greatest number, have tried to sell the idea that, in all “normal” societies, government is by consent. In contemporary newspaper language the word “terrorism” nearly always refers to illegitimate activity. It is assumed that the legal government maintains its authority by cultivating a consensus of respect for established law and order; the terrorist is part of a subversionary organization (such as the Stern gang in mandated Palestine) which tries to destroy that authority by systematic resort to violence. This type of terrorism is quite explicitly not within the field of our author’s present enquiry. It is Weber’s legitimate Gewaltsamkeit that he is after: “The central problem of the book is to find out why some men who already have authority choose to rule by violence and fear.” (p. vii)

However, instead of attempting a close study of despotism in the contemporary world, Walter proposes an extended examination of historical case histories. He envisages a subsequent volume which will concern itself with governmental terrorism in more complex societies, but the present book is designed to illustrate a general theory, and it does this by drawing on European accounts of pre-colonial tyrannies located south of the Sahara. This has the ironic consequence that the role of South Africa’s arch-villain is played not by Dr. Verwoerd but by the early nineteenth-century Zulu King Shaka.

Walter’s choice of materials does not stem from any subliminal bias against “savages” but from a desire to achieve detachment and simplicity. His point about detachment is that Western social scientists tend to be so thoroughly committed to a belief in the moral superiority of voluntary forms of cooperation that they almost take it for granted that terrorism could only be a pathological solution of last resort:

They come up with judgments that resemble the following improvisations: “The crisis in France was so acute that Robespierre had no choice but to initiate the Reign…

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