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Is violence ever justified?

December 7, 2007 | Page 8

BRIAN JONES answers a question that socialists are often asked about the struggle for a different society.

WE LIVE in an extremely violent world. In 2002, a World Health Organization report concluded:

Violence is among the leading causes of death for people aged 15-44 years of age, accounting for 14 percent of deaths among males and 7 percent of deaths among females. On an average day, 1,424 people are killed in acts of homicide, almost one person every minute. Roughly one person commits suicide every 40 seconds. About 35 people are killed every hour as a direct result of armed conflict. In the 20th century, an estimated 191 million people lost their lives directly or indirectly as a result of conflict, and well over half of them were civilians.

One way to look at all of this violence is to blame human nature. People are naturally violent, goes the argument, and that's why we live in such a violent world.

Following this reasoning, we should say "thank goodness" for the police, the army and prisons, since they work to stop all of the violence.

The mainstream media share this framework. You can tell by the way they talk about "cycles of violence" or print headlines that scream about how violence "broke out" here, or violence "broke out" there. And since we're naturally such violent folk, violence requires little more explanation than that.

What else to read

Leon Trotsky's Their Morals and Ours takes up the question of violence from a number of dimensions. Ahmed Shawki's Black Liberation and Socialism, published by Haymarket Books, provides an introduction to the struggle against racism in the U.S. and the political questions that faced the movement.

For a clear and concise introduction to the ideas of Marxism, read Paul D'Amato's The Meaning of Marxism, which also applies the ideas of this tradition to specific questions like violence and nonviolence.

The International Socialist Review has published a number of articles about this subject, including how historical movements for change have approached the strategy and tactics of nonviolence--see especially "Ghandi and the politics of nonviolence" and "Pacifism and war."


But violence never simply "breaks out." And if we're so naturally violent, why does the military have to go to such great lengths to "break down" soldiers in order to train them to kill?

Violence is always a means to some end, not an end unto itself. To really explain the violent nature of the world, we need a different framework altogether. We must understand the conditions that produce violence, and the ends toward which much of the violence in the world is consciously organized.

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IN ALMOST every country of the world, the state power--the government--is the greatest source of organized violence. States have armies, whose main purpose is to use violence against other state armies. States also have police forces, whose purpose is to use violence to control the domestic population.

At the end of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. described the U.S. government as the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." He was talking about a war where American military forces killed over 3 million Vietnamese people.

Forty years later, tragically, the statement is still true. The U.S. war on Iraq is only one case in point. After killing 3,000 Iraqi children a month for over 10 years starting in the 1990s through a regime of crippling sanctions, the U.S. has now also caused over 1 million "excess deaths" in Iraq since it invaded and occupied the country in 2003.

And what of the role of the U.S. government at home? Here, the military was founded as a force for the genocidal extermination of the Native Americans, and the police were first organized as slave-catchers. Today, the U.S. government holds, by force of arms, 2.2 million of its own citizens (most of them convicted of non-violent offenses) behind bars.

Rather than see the state as a neutral force, standing above society (and ostensibly "protecting" everyone), Karl Marx and his collaborator Frederick Engels were the first to describe all states--from ancient Rome to today--as instruments for one class to rule over another. As Engels wrote:

The ancient state was, above all, the state of the slave owners for holding down the slaves, just as the feudal state was the organ of the nobility for holding down the peasant serfs and bondsmen, and the modern representative state is an instrument for exploiting wage labor by capital.

All of the violence described above flowed not from some flaw in our nature. The occupation of Iraq didn't just "break out" or flow naturally from some "cycle" of violence. The occupation of Iraq was organized by a specific group of people--the American ruling class. They organized all of these violent means toward a very specific end--their ability to control the largest supply of oil in the world, and thereby to maintain a dominant position in the world's marketplace.

Likewise, to report that violence "broke out" in Palestine only serves to hide the real objectives to which that violence is directed. The media are thus obscuring Israel's interest in using violence to destroy any possibility of Palestinian statehood, and the Palestinians' interest in using violence to win liberation from their occupiers.

What of the violence that is not organized by the state? What about domestic abuse? What about armed robbery? Surely the state is not to blame for those?

Actually, states have long been endorsers and promoters of violence against women. Ancient Roman law held women and children to be a man's property, holding the power of life and death over their heads. In the Middle Ages, men were encouraged to beat their wives to control them.

Early American colonists passed laws prohibiting the beating of wives after 8 p.m.--to avoid disturbing the peace. It wasn't until 1911 that most U.S. states (except Mississippi) outlawed wife beating. Thus, the state for several thousand years, has officially sanctioned, condoned and endorsed domestic violence.

And yet here in the U.S., where it is "officially" condemned, millions of women are violently abused by men every year. Like robberies and other kinds of violent crime, domestic abuse continues anyway because of social conditions that promote it.

Just as armed robbery is a product of poverty, domestic violence is often a result of the frustration produced by poverty, for example. If we know that veterans of war are more likely to abuse their wives, does that tell us something about human nature, or something about the nature of our society?

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MANY WHO recoil at the violence of our world turn to the ideas of pacifism and declare their opposition to all forms of violence.

But can we truly condemn all violence? What of the basic right of self-defense?

There are two problems with a moralistic approach to these questions: one, it fails to appreciate the difference between the violence of the oppressed and the violence of the oppressor; and two, it serves to justify the existing ruling-class monopoly on the means of violence.

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky brilliantly illustrated the first point in his famous pamphlet, Their Morals and Ours. Citing the American Civil War, he poses the question: "Is the violence of the slave the same as the violence of the slave-master?":

The question lies not even in which of the warring camps caused or itself suffered the greatest number of victims. History has different yardsticks for the cruelty of the Northerners and the cruelty of the Southerners in the Civil War. A slave-owner who through cunning and violence shackles a slave in chains, and a slave who through cunning or violence breaks the chains--let not the contemptible eunuchs tell us that they are equals before a court of morality!

Likewise, should we wag our fingers at the Jews, trapped by the Nazis, awaiting the gas chamber, who smuggled guns into the Warsaw Ghetto? If they tried to shoot their way out of the ghetto, should we cheer them or scold them?

The ruling class would have us believe that the violence of the state--of the police, of the military--is "heroic," but that the violence of the poor or the oppressed is "terrorism." Malcolm X eloquently challenged this hypocrisy when he asked an audience in Detroit:

How are you going to be nonviolent in Mississippi, as violent as you were in Korea? How can you justify being nonviolent in Mississippi and Alabama, when your churches are being bombed, and your little girls are being murdered, and at the same time, you're going to be violent with Hitler, and Tojo, and somebody else that you don't even know?

If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it's wrong to be violent defending Black women and Black children and Black babies and Black men, then it's wrong for America to draft us and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.

Anyone who wants to revolutionize society--to rid the world of so much violence--must eventually face the question of how to deal with the overwhelming violence of the state. In 1917, the workers of Russia would never have been able to take power if Russian soldiers had not refused their orders to repress that revolution. The soldiers, in fact, joined the revolution.

Actually, the First World War ended because of the revolutionary wave that swept Europe--soldiers from all sides who were sick of war rose up against their real enemies at home. Fifty years later, the disintegration of the American armed forces during the Vietnam War showed a similar process, albeit on a smaller scale.

It is not enough to be disgusted by the violence of our society. All those who genuinely want to end it should start by supporting the right of people to defend themselves from violent repression and to resist occupation by any means necessary.

But since the armed forces are overwhelmingly working class in composition, a revolutionary movement must also aim to win over the military, and thus take away from the ruling class its principal means of violent repression. A revolution that eliminates classes and class oppression will eliminate the need for violent repression--and eliminate the desperate, frustrating social conditions that lead to individual acts of violence as well.

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