Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Debating violence

By Gary Tedman

Joel, I was very impressed by the depth of your essay on violence and had some thoughts that I wanted to debate.

In some cases I think what you might seem to be arguing for is to rip up the capitalist railway lines (tactics of war) and put down communist railway lines (tactics of war), yet both are likely to have a lot of things in common (metal tracks, sleepers). Military science, strategy, was something Engels excelled at and researched deeply (are you wanting to eject Engels?). But if there is an alternative that could work in the face of imperialist fascism, can Dr. King's noble example be it, except in rare cases (Gaza for example)?

"It is a grievous error to reduce the entire Marxist tradition to violent social revolution"

As you rightly say; but what you say of Marx later, that he held

"theoretically abstract legitimations for the destruction of people and cultures" and had an "apparent philosophical indifference" to violence" that undermined his own 'intense personal (personal!) humanism' is, I think, not true or is as you say only 'apparent'. That Marx held the most sympathy for the oppressed and the downtrodden in any culture and context is the truth, and he was rightly cynical about those who always called for peace yet in doing so turned their backs on suffering that they might have been able to prevent or combat.

(Pasted from

In one sense, I think it is impossible to avoid violence (or force). We know capitalism is full of the most abstract violence imaginable: people die as a result of economic decisions made thousands of miles away in boardrooms by people they have never met and who have never 'committed a violent act'. Compared to this acts of revolutionary violence are small fry and are far more accountable. Violence is a norm of capitalism, but it is usually a hidden violence, an abstract violence.

To understand this capitalist mechanism, Marx must be unafraid of it, so he often seems cool headed, true, but in the chapter 'Genesis of Capital' in Vol 1 of Capital there is obvious condemnation, and sorrow, of the very deepest kind, for the plight of its victims. Also, no Marxist would endorse vigilantism, which is what you say King seems to be most against (individual acts), it is something of a straw man here.

How can one 'effect' political transformation without effecting it? The word 'effect' means to make happen, to act, to do something materially. It implies a degree of force, at least. Even to get out of bed in the morning requires force. We must always wish to be peaceful, but realise at the same time what horrors the capitalist class will stoop to in order to protect their position if they feel it slipping, and we must not succumb to this force, which often means 'pushing back'. Marxism has every respect for pacifism, but it is not a pacifism. This does not rule out forms of non-violent struggle, of course: these strategies are not mutually exclusive. It also means that people like yourself take up a pen and argue the case for change, this is an act and in some senses could be considered 'forceful' because it 'engages the enemy' in the sphere of thought.

In fact, drawing the line between violence and non-violence is very difficult, non-violence almost seems at its extreme to be a withdrawal (or apparent withdrawal) from the world, from engagement, yet our very inaction can cause as much action sometimes as not. In struggle many of us find comrades and friends even amongst those we battle against. A non-violent position by seemingly opting-out can imply there is a 'higher force' and a superior moral plane, itself sometimes a tactical liberal move to gain the high ground, a position from which a greater 'righteous' violence may often be unleashed, and is.

Of course: every end is also a means, and every means is an end in itself, this is simple dialectical thinking which rids us of the ends versus means problem. As Walter Benjamin I think says: there is no point using means that destroy the thing you aim for.