Friday, December 02, 2005

When is the Resort to Violence Acceptable?

A new society rises out of the actions that are taken to form it… Noam Chomsky

Blogging has helped me grow. Through an extended debate on my last post concerning the moral validity of violence as a means to achieve revolutionary hopes, I was provoked and challenged by thoughtful bloggers that contributed to the debate until I finally stumbled upon a parallel debate on violence that Noam Chomsky had with Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag, et. al. The debate truly opened my eyes and expanded my thinking on the moral dilemma of violence within a revolution. Although a perfect answer remains elusive even to the likes of these brilliant intellectuals, the argument provided by Noam Chomsky is the most rational discussion I have ever encountered on the topic. I strongly encourage a thorough read of this debate and would welcome any further discussion on this complex issue.

To read this debate, go to:


troutsky said...

Chomsky posits two assertions used by those who oppose violence in general, that one ,they feel "violence illegitimate eliminate a greater evil"( in other words the ends do not justify the means argument, such as we are currently having regarding torture) or ,two,that it is simply an inefficiant method.(the tactical argument I have used)In fact I believe there is a third option for the theoretical rejection of violence, the post-modern or de-constructionist argument that the truth about the location of "evil" is impossible to know and more often than not leads to chaos.I also adopt this position,that a positivist or absolutist stance is philosophicaly untenable.Arendts observation about "the banality of evil" to me describes this tension within it's unknowable quality.You know it when you see it but you can't describe it before hand.To me she rightfully argues here that"moralistic attitudes in politics tend to provide moral justifications for crimes",also to the point that "evil" is difficult to place categorically. Chomsky then attempts to make a distinction between justified and legitimate and ends up stating that careful analysis, certain standards of proof or empirical evidence could possibly show that violence would be effective and therefore legitimate(though in his experience they never or almost never do),but which he seperates from "justified".Here again the temporal aspect comes into play because it is so much easier to use this analysis looking BACK, as they do with China and Algeria and Spain etc. than it is to use in the current, such as slum riots or Viet Nam (it was 67).Chomskies characterization of the moral stance as in "moralistic, that is , a facade of legitimacy" also errs in my view, in that a facade is a deliberatly misleading or deceptive front where the "self" is separate from the action while moralistic activity,even when wrong,is totally internalized. This is the righteous believer, the religious attitude which is not a facade.He further confuses the issue of morality in my opinion when he equates the "tactical, hence moral question" of legitimacy.

I want to confront these constructs of morality and evil within a theoretical framework where justice (a moral concept) is a great co-product of a program which establishes a classless society and hence, helps to jusify it but not determine it.Moral considerations aside,maintaining a dialecticaly materialist view we see a movement or a party is simply enabling, not determining, historical development and its tactics or actions are only one aspect of what form it will take.Whether they are ethical may determine their relative efficiency but it will not change the fact that contradiction leads to crisis or that the society we hope to form will also contain contradictions.Most violence seems to take the form historically of counter-revolutionary resistance where it is obvious violent tactics will be necessary for suppression.Both legitimate and efficient and no place to "turn the other cheek".

I have often thought of the different approaches of the Black Panthers and the Muslim Brotherhood, how it was more effective to simply imply threat, such as a"we will use any means necessary" militancy as opposed to open confrontation and conflict against overwhelming force.In terms of building a new society,for Machiavelli the ban on imagining a new republic is lifted as long as one does not shy away from the hard measures that accompany the undertaking.."For the greatness of the thing partly terrifies men, so that they fail in their first beginnings"
I like this from Rousseau :He who does dare to undertake the establishment of a people(the revolutionary enterprise) should feel that he is, so to speak, in a position to change human nature." And why not?

Ché Bob said...


I would love to understand what you are saying here because I know your heart is in the right place, but if our messages get swallowed in our rhetoric we know we are losing people. Frankly, I'm one of those people. What exactly are you trying to say? What is your position regarding the debate? I can't tell what you are agreeing with and what you are disregarding. Rhetoric is fun, but communication is the goal.

troutsky said...

You are right, it is garbled. Too much Nietzche and vodka perhaps but it is a difficult format in which to tackle what is a pretty profound philosophical conundrum. I tend to get carried away with criticism sometimes and forget the original issue. The obtuse nature of my reply is probably an accurate reflection though of my undeveloped opinion, a kind of see-sawing on these questions not only on the use of violence but the role of morality and the nature of evil. I didn’t think Chomsky, Arendt or any of them satisfactorily defined the main issues so I got bogged down on critique. Still, due to the fact there is an extraordinary burden on any project of the left,( much less a revolutionary one), to explain just how you can avoid the violent terror associated with Stalinist repression and purges, or the “cultural revolution”, soviet satelite states,PolPot and on and on,( those systems, in other words ,most people associate with socialism) it is necessary to keep on working towards just such a satisfactory theoretical explanation. I think it is especially timely given the events in Latin America, where opposing forces are moving towards real conflict.

Sometimes, often late at night, I just throw down words and see what comes out of the jumble.It can smell like rhetorical excess but Im striving (with no formal training) for a linguistic jazz that doesn’t work about as often as it does.I appreciate your keeping me honest. You are right as well about communication, especially with time as an enemy.

Orwell writing during the war called for a revolution to set the people of England free. He says ‘Revolution does not mean red flags and street fighting, it means a fundamental shift of power.Whether it happens with or without bloodshed is largely an accident of time and place.Nor does it mean the dictatorship of a single class.”There were plenty of gaps in his theoretical work as well but it is instructive. Im going to start here again by saying I think “moral” has to mean in the secular humanist sense, which can be helpful, and “evil” we should leave in the metaphysical, which doesn’t. The means used to enact radical change won’t be an “accident” but the result of a decision at some level.

troutsky said...

I meant to say "evil" ,which isnt helpful.

Ché Bob said...


Do you really associate Stalin, Pol Pot, the "cultural revolution", et. al. with "projects of the left"? Frankly, I wouldn't dare make this association. The brutal authoritarian nature of all of these "evils" are more aptly associated with projects from the right. To me, there is nothing here to critique about the left.

Let's take the Spanish Revolution, or the Cuban Revolution, or the Chilean, or Guatemalan, or the Iranian, or the most recent Venezuelan Revolution and make a critique. What are your assessments of violence within these "leftist" revolutions? What do you know about violence within these revolutions?

This debate began back in my post about violence in Argentina and whether or not it was "appropriate", or "wise", etc. What I learned there was that my feelings of "by any means necessary," have been tempered by our debate; and some ideas I once held about violence have changed as a result of your pointing me in a new direction. I feel positive about these changes and feel I have grown as a revolutionary. However, I must protest that now that I have reached a deeper and more critical position on violence and the revolution my hope is to not wallow in postmodern deconstruction for the sake of argumentative deconstruction. I went to college, so I've been there and done that. I want to get to work. That doesn't mean that I've reached the end of this or any other issue, it just means that I hope to work for practical/operational solutions.
As for Chomsky's argument I still think he makes very clear sense of a tough issue. "One can easily imagine and find circumstances in which violence does eliminate a greater evil." Setting aside the infinitely reducible and nihilistic nature of postmodernism--which is also often frivilous--I would like to imagine that "evil" can be operationally defined and that it is certainly experienced by masses of people. If I hope to end suffering, I must be willing to let go of debate, theory and the privilege of intellectual masturbation.

I think Chomsky aptly points out that a justified case for violence is rare indeed. However, even if there are instances when such justification can be made, it doesn't necessarily result with the hoped for result. In fact, it often reduces the ideals of the revolution. At the same time, Chomsky explains that the case for nonviolent means within revolutionary movements has yielded extremely important advances. It is to these arguments I would hope to direct revolutionaries. I think Chomsky is extremely lucid in pointing out the legitmacy of violence both practically and theoretically:

"If tactics involves a calculation of the human cost of various actions, then tactical considerations are actually the only considerations that have a moral quality to them. So I can't accept a general and absolute opposition to violence, only that resort to violence is illegitimate unless the consequences are to eliminate a greater evil."

"With this formulation, however, one moves from the abstract discussion to the context of concrete historical circumstances where there are shades of gray and obscure complex relations between means and ends and uncalculable consequences of actions, and so on and so forth. Formulated in these terms, the advocates of a qualified commitment to nonviolence have a pretty strong case. I think they can claim with very much justice that in almost all real circumstances there is a better way than resort to violence."

To be continued, I'm sure...

troutsky said...

What needs to be explained, in my opinion,is why movements born of leftist revolutionary ideology morphed into those authoritarian, totalitarian, dictatorial, regimes using state terror to further their agendas.Do you deny this is the dominant narrative, the first question you get when promoting radical change or do you deny it is true? It is beside the main point but not irrelevent, as evidenced by the amount of energy put into this explanation by the post-Bolshevik left and goes inderectly to this question of violence.

If evil can be operationally defined, it carries such an incredible responsibility that I am unsure mortals can be entrusted with it.(history suggests otherwise)It seems to me that defeating Pinochet or Batista or even Mussolini because he was "evil" is as unsatisfactory as defeating Islamo-fascism for the same reason and supports a non-rvolutionary agenda.I would rather see a much deeper analysis and I don't think that is unreasonably post-modern.Within a humanist frame work I can define basic rights which have a moral or ethical imperative.I will fight for these rights (defend them) using the most effective means,up to and including violence as a last resort,accepting the fact there may be an unresolvable tension between what I feel are justifiable means for the defense of those rights and my opponents having the exact same feelings. I will hope to avoid a metaphysical characterization of his nature as evil or avoid using that to legitimize my actions, even though it dispels that tension.So as to Chomskys' argument,where one can "find circumstances in which violence does eliminate a greater evil" I would substitute evil with "reduction of liberty" or oppression or something more objective. Is inflicting suffering on others evil or unjust? I feel this point is essential rather than frivilous in providing a practical guide for action.Because Reagan was allowed to fight evil and Bush is now fighting evil the discourse is perverted.

One aspect to the "shades of grey" Chomsky refers to is that when you are calculating "human cost" as a tactical consideration, there must be a recognized difference between military and civilian targets and a difference between agressive and defensive postures.Castro was successful in defending the right of campesinos to own property and not targeting civilians or infra-structure (perhaps large ranches, plantations and a couple factories)

I remain conflicted over how to structure a decision making process within an organized movement so that it remains effective and moral when deciding tactics and strategy.I suppose a strict policy of non-violence eliminates this tension.

"Wallowing" Che bob?I am the only one I know in a thousand mile radius trying to organize anti-capitalists.(like herding cats)
I am convinced a political program has to have a definable philosophical and ideological foundation, not because the world needs another book but because intelligent people will rightfully question it.Part of the work is intellectual, blogging our way through issues, part is organizational,part of it is fun, like when are we going snowboarding?

Ché Bob said...


I enjoyed your response. You are right, you are definitely a man of action and you are doing a lot to organize socialists. This is much appreciated. In my case, I'm trying to make socialists (as a teacher).

I agree language is important, so let's put "evil" away and say that we are fighting against the "reduction of human rights," or against oppression, or against the ruling class. Fighting for "freedom/liberty" has been completely subverted, and we've also got to do this because a "war on terror" is taken, as is a "war against evil."

I like what you described as your will to "fight for these rights (defend them) using the most effective means,up to and including violence as a last resort."

As for CAJA, we struggle on without an absolute policy on non-violence, and I think this is because many share the above feeling with you and me. Most of these people have struggled and suffered, and seen the effects of oppression first hand and so therefore cannot exclude the possibility of violence as means of maintaining or achieving a more human existence for the oppressed.

I am always glad to struggle with people like you. I am sorry that I implied that you "wallow" in intellectualism, you are a true revolutionary and I proudly proclaim your honor as such. I agree that it is important to discuss these issues. I especially liked what you said about the "shades of grey" and that there needs to be a distinction made between the different kinds of targets, i.e. military and civilian.

I got lost in one part of your comment where it seemed that you may have confused my words. I don't think I called this struggle "frivolous" but that the debate can be that way. I can't think of anything more honorable than the struggle against oppression, and that includes those that work for radical solutions within intellectual pursuits. I must admit though, that I don't find that many intellectuals are very willing to rock the boat. Most are in fact, "wallowing" in debate just as I described. I guess I would like to see more intelligent people such as yourself, and above all, Noam Chomsky, or the likes of Howard Zinn, Arundhati Roy, Tariq Ali, et. al. take more risks.

Blogging is important, very important, but it is very much a PRIVILEGE most that are suffering do not have! I just get self-conscious that we aren't doing all that we can or all that we should and it comes to the fore when I'm blogging inside the comfort of this warm, safe home. Can we do more? More importantly, can we do more this very moment?

Everyday I go to my job I take risks by telling the truth. I am constantly subverting conventions and helping young spirits learn to question the established rule. We look at institutions of authority and question their legitimacy. I know that my job is very much at risk, and I am unafraid to get fired as I know that my cause is just. In other words, the alternative (not taking risks with my job) is unacceptable for me. I am also confident that my small act has already had a ripple effect in that small conservative community. It feels right to be the antithesis to the orthodoxy of that world. However, when we get lost in discussion, and you hear about people throwing themselves into the line of fire (Fort Beining, GA., etc.) don't you stop and think that we need to do more, and now? I guess I get conflicted when I imagine this small 14-year-old girl I have been sponsoring with my low-income and how I should be more proactive. Maybe this should be my next post. This would make a good topic for discussion: should we (revolutionaries) be doing more right now? Should we get more uncomfortable right now? What should we do?

Troutsky the wise, I know you have something to offer. Send help.

Again, you are a man-of-action, sorry that I implied otherwise. Stuggle on Troutsky!

troutsky said...

This is from an essay on direct action at the anarcho/syndacalist site you have as a link

That symbolic actions, and actions that borrow their efficiency from the very powers we are struggling against, more and more have come to be defined as direct actions, reflects our present organizational impotence, our social fragmentation and a generalized lack of trust among waged and unwaged workers in their own collective powers. Under particular circumstances symbolic actions can be powerful. But they should be seen as what they are at their best: means of communication. Their degree of efficiency outside this lies foremost in the fear among the owners of the world that they will be followed up by more direct forms of action. At the present moment, disorganized as we stand, or organized into passivity, they are also often all we have, but that should not lead us to the conclusion that they are all we could have.

it is in the theory section where there is some interesting references to anarchist economics.It is interesting to see where different factions come down on this, for instance one writer labels Albert and Hahnel Marxist utopians! They argue they should not even be labeled socialists! Again, I am spending so much time on this research into economic theory because it seems these divisions seem the main impediment to constructive organizing.Everyone has a similar critique of capitalism but there is no agreement on what should take its place or how the transformation would take place.Even in this era we see Marx and Bakunin and Proudhon and Kropotkin still butting heads.

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