Reinhold Niebuhr On The Ethical Permissibility Of Political Violence

In reviewing Reinhold Niebuhr‘s Major Works on Religion and Politics, Adam Kirsch makes note of the following passage from Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society:

If a season of violence can establish a just social system and can create the possibilities of its preservation, there is no purely ethical reason upon which violence and revolution can be ruled out.

Kirsch then goes on to note:

[B]y the end of the book, Niebuhr has retreated from [this position] somewhat. In theory violence might be justified, he argues, but in practice the American proletariat has no more chance of winning a revolutionary struggle than do American blacks. For both of these disinherited groups, Niebuhr concludes, confrontational nonviolence on the Gandhian model is the best course: “Non-violence is a particularly strategic instrument for an oppressed group which is hopelessly in the minority and has no possibility of developing sufficient power to set against its oppressors.”

Here, Niebuhr argues that political violence is ethically permissible but, given a concrete socio-political situation like the American polity–one with its  particular material circumstances pertaining to matters like the power and reach of its law enforcement apparatus, the material deprivation of its underclasses, and the fragmented relationship between them–tactically inadvisable. This is an interesting and important concession and qualification–especially coming from someone like Niebuhr who, because of his status as a Christian theologian, might be imagined to have some predisposition to ruling out violence on ethical grounds.

For what Niebuhr has conceded here, of course, is that in a different socio-political context, political violence might well be tactically advisable. Perhaps the relevant oppressed classes are more politically united–they have been able to build alliances geared toward revolutionary action; perhaps they are better equipped in material terms–with access to mass media and communication and reliable means of economic support. (In the American context, access to ‘weaponry’ takes on a whole new meaning given the militarization of its law enforcement forces and the proliferation of privately owned guns.) Viewed in this fashion, Niebuhr’s views take on a far more pragmatic hue: Revolution and revolutionary violence is a political business; it aims to change the distribution of power in a particular polity; its advisability is a matter of strategy and tactics; nonviolence, in some contexts, may have more revolutionary potential; in yet others, violence may suggest itself as a better political strategy.

Because I have no prima facie case to make against violence as a political tactic per se, I unsurprisingly find myself in agreement with Niebuhr. Doing politics and achieving political ends requires a toolbox; the more varied its contents, the better, for they are more likely to accommodate a diversity of polities and material political contexts.  Those tools find their place in our bag of tricks according to how ‘well’ they work. This ‘wellness’ can be judged in several dimensions; perhaps violence will be judged inadvisable in some context–as above–precisely because it offers little to no chance of success or threatens to produce too many undesirable knock-on effects. Whatever the case may be, our evaluation of our political options proceeds on pragmatic grounds. So-called a priori, ‘foundational,’ ‘first principles’ arguments against our political tools have no place here.

One comment on “Reinhold Niebuhr On The Ethical Permissibility Of Political Violence

  1. ashokbhatia says:

    If one were to consider Mahabharata, why did Lord Krishna move in such a way as to make the war happen, while projecting it as a peace initiative? (I allude to the portion where he makes an offer that Kauaravas may give only five villages to Pandavas and avoid a war). The difference, perhaps, is that the objective of politicians today is not the establishment of ‘dharma’ but merely to win elections and cling to their seats of power.

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