A system built on violence

To condemn all violence on moral grounds means condemning the violence of the oppressed slave equally with that of the oppressing slaveholder.

CRITICS OF socialism often condemn revolutionaries for being "in favor" of violence. Coming from politicians and military leaders, this is rank hypocrisy.

Columnist: Paul D'Amato

Paul D'Amato Paul D'Amato is managing editor of the International Socialist Review and author of The Meaning of Marxism, a lively and accessible introduction to the ideas of Karl Marx and the tradition he founded. Paul can be contacted at [email protected].

The U.S. ruling class sees no contradiction between punishing murder during peacetime with death--and rewarding large-scale killing during wartime with medals.

As a first line of defense, the ruling class appeals to "universal" laws--that killing is bad, violence solves nothing, etc.--which they flout at every turn. But it's hard to take seriously President Clinton's 1999 warnings to youth after the Columbine killings that violence isn't a way to solve problems--since at the same time, he was "solving" his own problems in Serbia by raining bombs on Belgrade.

Those in power reserve the right to use violence wherever and whenever they consider it necessary--including against those who might use violence to challenge their power.

Thus, they consider it perfectly reasonable for the U.S. to commit terrorist acts overseas--like the leveling of an entire poor neighborhood in Panama City in 1989 to bring down former U.S. ally Gen. Manuel Noriega or the deliberate bombing of a TV station in Belgrade in 1999 because it was broadcasting "lies." Yet it's the most unspeakable horror for individual terrorists to blow up an American target.

Pointing out this hypocrisy doesn't directly answer the question of activists who consider themselves pacifists. They often frame their views by saying that violence begets violence--and that we would be "lowering ourselves to their level" of our side were to use violence.

There is, of course, one immediate argument against the blanket condemnation of all violence--that of self-defense against a violent attacker. Most people aren't pure pacifists and will allow exceptions like this.

But the bigger problem with pacifism is that it fails to make a distinction between the violence of the oppressor and the violence of the oppressed.

Can we really equate the violence of the Nazis seeking to exterminate all Jews with the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto who used violence to resist extermination? Likewise, can we equate the violence of American Indians resisting removal and genocide with the violence of the U.S. state bent on "pacifying" them?

Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote:

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!

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THE U.S. itself was established by the use of revolutionary force--first in 1776 against British tyranny, and then again on a more bloody scale during the Civil War against the Southern slavocracy.

Throughout history, force on a mass scale has been used in two ways--as a means for ruling classes to conquer and enslave and fight over the wealth and territory of other rulers. Or it has been used by the oppressed to resist--and sometimes overthrow--their oppressors.

The condemnation of all violence on moral grounds means, if applied consistently, that you must condemn the violence of the oppressed slave equally with that of the oppressing slaveholder.

So you must condemn equally the violence of the paramilitary death squads in Colombia with the peasant youth who takes up arms to resist that violence. You must condemn equally African Americans who use violence to defend themselves and the violence of the Klansmen aiming to lynch them.

Ultimately, a call to "turn the other cheek"--and deny the oppressed the right to use force--is to condone the force used to keep them down.

That is why anyone who genuinely opposes injustice and inequality must reject pacifism. For socialists, rejecting pacifism doesn't mean the opposite-an appeal to any and all acts of violence.

Whatever particular tactics are necessary to achieve fundamental change, they are meaningless without the involvement of millions. Throughout history, the chains of oppression were never broken by individual acts of violence--but by the action of masses of people seeking their own liberation.

First published in the January 5, 2001, issue of Socialist Worker.