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.

CLR James on the ‘Surprisingly Moderate’ Reprisals of the Haitian Revolution

Here are two very powerful passages from CLR James‘ classic The Black Jacobins: Touissant L’Overture and the San Domingo Revolution (Vintage Books, second edition revised, New York, 1962, pp. 88-89):

The slaves destroyed tirelessly. Like the peasants in the Jacquerie or the Luddite wreckers, they were seeking their salvation in the most obvious way, the destruction of what they knew was the cause of their sufferings; and if they destroyed much it was because they had suffered much. They knew that as long as these plantations stood their lot would be to labour on  them until they dropped. The only thing was to destroy them. From their masters they had known rape, torture, degradation, and at the slightest provocation, death. They returned in kind. For two centuries the higher civilisation had shown them that power was used for wreaking your will on those whom you controlled. Now that they held power they did as they had been taught. In the frenzy of the first encounters they killed all. Yet they spared the priests whom they feared and the surgeons who had been kind to them. They, whose women had undergone countless violations, violated all the women who fell into their hands, often on the bodies of their still bleeding husbands, fathers and brothers. “Vengeance ! Vengeance” was their war-cry, and one of them carried a white child on a pike as a standard.

And yet they were surprisingly moderate, then and afterwards, far more humane than their masters had been or would ever be to them. They did not maintain this revengeful spirit for long. The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression. For the one aims at perpetuating resented injustice, the other is merely a momentary passion soon appeased. As the revolution gained territory they spared many of the men, women, and children whom they surprised on plantations. To prisoners of war alone they remained merciless. They tore out their flesh with redhot pincers, they roasted them on slow fires, they sawed a carpenter between two of his boards. Yet in all the records of that time there is no single instance of such fiendish tortures as burying white men up to the neck and smearing the holes in their faces to attract insects, or blowing them up with gun-powder, or any of the thousand and one bestialities to which they had been subjected. Compared with what their masters had done to them in cold blood, what they did was negligible, and they were spurred on by the ferocity with which the whites in Le Cap treated all slave prisoners who fell into their hands.

The italicized line is footnoted as follows:

This statement has been criticised. I stand by it. C.L.R.J.

I can imagine some of the contours of this criticism: How could you defend rape and murder and pillage? The killing of babies? The savage treatment of prisoners?

James offers a defense in the same passage and it is interestingly plausible.  The slave revolt, the uprising, was bound to be a convulsion, a shaking-off, one that could not but, given the history of their oppression–described in gruesome detail in Chapter 1–result in some reprisals. But this striking back would not be, and perhaps couldn’t be, anything more than a brief spasm of cruelty and anger, a cathartic and horrible outpouring of accumulated anger and grief. It would not be followed by enslavement and the systematic, prolonged brutality the slaves had been subjected to. The violence inflicted on the slaves was directed at the perpetuation of a very particular system of control; that which the slaves directed at their masters was a momentary outburst.  The mutilations, floggings, rapes, and live roastings–among other humiliations and obscenities–the slaves had suffered were to ensure the breaking of their spirit, the assertion of owner privilege; they were the visible features of an ideology of utter and total control. They broke bodies and minds alike. The cruelties of the retaliation meted out by the slaves, in contrast, appear as a momentary expression of revenge, the passions underlying which, hopefully, would soon subside. There is nothing systematic, nothing codified, about them.

These considerations do not, I think, condone the violence but they do put them into some perspective.

Herbert Marcuse on the Unity of Theory and Practice

In Counterrevolution and Revolt (Beacon Press, Boston, 1972), as part of his critical take on the New LeftHerbert Marcuse writes:

The pertification of Marxian theory violates the very principle the New Left proclaims: the unity of theory and practice. A theory which has not caught up with the practice of capitalism cannot possibly guide the practice aiming at the abolition of capitalism. The reduction of Marxian theory to solid “structures” divorces the theory from reality and gives it an abstract, remote, “scientific” character which facilitates its dogmatic ritualization. In a sense, all theory is abstract: its conceptual dissociation from the given reality is a precondition for understanding and changing reality. Theory is furthermore necessarily abstract by virtue of the fact that it comprehends a totality of conditions and tendencies, in Marxian theory; a historical totality. Thus, it can never decide on a particular practice–for example, whether or not certain buildings should be occupied or attacked–but it can (and ought to) evaluate the prospects of particular actions within the given totality, namely, whether a situation prevails where such occupations and attacks are indicated. The unity of theory and practice is never immediate. The given social reality, not yet mastered by the forces of change, demands the adaptation of strategy to the objective conditions–prerequisite for changing the latter. A non-revolutionary situation is essentially different from a pre- or revolutionary situation. Only a theoretical analysis can define and distinguish the prevailing situation and its potential. The given reality is there, in its own right and power–the soil on which theory develops, and yet the object, “the other of theory” which, in the process of change, continues to determine theory.

Well. That’s quite a mouthful, but still a pretty wise one, despite being written back in 1972.

Here, Marcuse deftly defuses some of the standard rhetoric against theory in favor of an exclusive focus on praxis, and shows instead, how political practice uninformed by a suitably rigorous theory is fundamentally undermined. Furthermore, he dismisses the claim that the abstraction of theory is a handicap; instead, it is a feature necessary for its applicability and use. That abstraction is what enables its generality and ability to inform a variety of practical strategies; an insufficiently abstract theory is worse than useless; it may be dangerous in provoking misguided and wasteful action. Lastly, theory plays a vital role in development of a ‘non-revolutionary situation’ into a ‘pre- or revolutionary situation’, precisely because it enables the recognition of those features that make it ripe for such movement and ‘progress’.

Almost anyone that has engaged in any form of sustained political activism has entered into disputes about the relationship of theory and practice; these in their worst moments, devolve into a species of crippling sectarian warfare. Marcuse’s calming note above is not unique; the unity of theory and practice is perhaps just as often preached as it is debated. Still, as a concise summation of its central principles, it bears rereading by all those engaged in the struggles where it is most required.

Kapuściński on Crowds and Revolutions

In his semi-novelistic, semi-journalistic account of the Iranian revolution and the final days of the Shah of Iran, Shah of Shahs, Ryszard Kapuściński, in the closing chapter ‘The Dead Flame’, writes:

Everything that makes up the outward, visible part of a revolution vanishes quickly. A person, an individual being, has a thousand ways of conveying his feelings and thoughts. He is riches without end, he is a world in which we can always discover something new. A crowd, on the other hand, reduces the individuality of the person; a man in a crowd limits himself to a few forms of elementary behavior. The forms through which a crowd can express its yearnings are extraordinarily meager and continually repeat themselves: the demonstration, the strike, the rally, the barricades. That is why you can write a novel about a man, but about a crowd–never. If the crowd disperses, goes home, does not reassemble, we say that the revolution is over.

This is an interesting cluster of remarks that do not necessarily belong in the same paragraph.

The ‘outward, visible part of revolution’–the one most often identified and commemorated and studied–often does have a transitory character; it is upon us quickly and ebbs away just as rapidly. It is why most superficial analyses of revolution insist on its ‘suddenness’ and its ‘dramatic change.’ But revolutions do not occur in days, weeks, or even months; sometimes they take years, decades, centuries. But the revolutionary, radical changes underway are not always visible, not always on the ‘surface’; more often than not, they happen away from the town square, away from the sites of assembly and protest and sloganeering and brickbats, away from where statues are pulled down. They happen in spaces of quieter, but just as intense, political dispute, where blueprints for change are drawn up, haggled over, contested, and drafted. Sometimes they happen in tiny, localized pockets of intimate and personal spaces where the tiniest of individual interactions are up for recontestation and reconfiguration. Sometimes a revolution bubbles up and then back down to find its ultimate resolution in these little pockets. There is a reason a revolution is called ‘radical’ – it’s because it happens at the roots, which more often than not, are deep, and well hidden away from continual inspection.

As for the forms in which a crowd can ‘express’ itself, they are not as ‘extraordinarily meager’ as Kapuściński might imagine. To suggest this is to make the mistake of imagining that the forms of the novel are meager because they always, at least until recently, took the form of paper books. ‘The demonstration, the strike, the rally, the barricade’ are very abstract templates. Within them lurk endlessly diverse possibilities for the display of revolutionary potential: perhaps in their manner of assembly and movement, perhaps in their persistence, perhaps in their effectiveness, perhaps in the forms in which their members finally rise up and resist. A revolutionary crowd is a collective artist of sorts–and here I address Kapuściński’s dismissal of the possibility of a novelistic account of it–one capable  of many reconfigurations of itself. That these basic forms have endured for as long as they have is perhaps the most eloquent testimony in support of the claim that they offer ample opportunity for creative revolutionaries to express themselves.

Finally, ‘if the crowd disperses, goes home, does not reassemble’, the revolution is indeed, often over. But sometimes, and this takes us back to where we began, it’s because the ‘crowd’ knows work remains to be done and not necessarily in the streets. There, the revolution continues.

Arendt, the Problem of ‘The Absolute’ and Revolutionary Fascination by Antiquity

There are many, many remarkable passages in Hannah Arendt‘s On Revolution, which forms part of my reading list for this fall semester’s Political Philosophy seminar. In particular, there is a profusion of them in Chapter 5, ‘Novus Ordo Saeclorum’. Here Arendt offers an analysis of the problem of legitimacy of post-revolutionary government i.e., the problem of ‘the absolute’, which confronts any system of power that dispenses with transcendent and transhumane sources of sanction (like those relied upon by the Church and monarchies) and concentrates on seeking foundations in the secular, the mundane, the profane, the earthly, the human. Arendt, in attempting to show how this problem might have been addressed by the American revolutionaries, goes on to note the inspiration that Roman antiquity provided to American and French revolutionaries alike, and provides an understanding of ‘revolution’ as ‘restoration’; it is a treatment remarkable both for its erudition and insight and should be required reading for any student of political theory. This chapter should be required reading, too, in any Philosophy of Law course for the keen understanding it displays of the natural and positive law debates. The relationship of law to political power, which is often missing in standard philosophical takes on these, is front and center in Arendt’s analysis.

I hope to write a more detailed analysis of this chapter sometime soon; for now, here is a tiny sampler, one which picks up on the perplexity that might be occasioned by noting the enthusiasm revolutionaries had for the ancients, and which, I think, is still relevant, as is most of Arendt’s analysis, for our day and age:

It has often been noticed that the actions of the men of the revolutions were inspired and guided to an extraordinary degree by the examples of Roman antiquity, and this is not only true for the French Revolution, whose agents had indeed an extraordinary flair for the theatrical; the Americans, perhaps, thought less of themselves in terms of ancient  greatness – though Thomas Paine was wont to think ‘what Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude’ – they certainly were conscious of emulating ancient virtue. When Saint-Just exclaimed, ‘The world has been empty since the Romans and is filled only with their memory, which is now our only prophecy of freedom’, he was echoing John Adams, to whom ‘the Roman constitution formed the noblest people and the greatest power that has ever existed’, just as Paine’s remark was preceded by James Wilson’s prediction that ‘the glory of America will rival- it will outshine the glory of Greece’. I have mentioned how strange this enthusiasm for the ancients actually was, how out of tune with the modern age, how unexpected that the men of the revolutions should turn to a distant past which had been so vehemently denounced by the scientists and the philosophers of the seventeenth century. And yet, when we recall with what  enthusiasm for ‘ancient prudence’ Cromwell’s short dictatorship had been greeted even in the seventeenth century by Harrington and. Milton, and with what unerring precision Montesquieu, in the first part of the eighteenth century,  turned his attention to the Romans again, we may well come to the conclusion that, without the classical example shining through the centuries, none of the men of the revolutions on either side of the Atlantic would have possessed the courage for what then. turned out to be unprecedented action. Historically speaking, it was as though the Renaissance’s revival of antiquity that had come to an abrupt end with the rise of the modern age should suddenly be granted another lease on life, as though the republican fervour of the short-lived Italian city-states – foredoomed, as Machiavelli ,knew so well, by the advent of the nation-state – had only lain dormant to give the nations of Europe the time to grow up, as it were, under the tutelage of absolute princes and enlightened despots.

However that may be, the reason why the men of the revolutions turned to antiquity for inspiration and guidance was most emphatically not a romantic yearning for past and tradition. Romantic conservatism – and which conservatism worth its salt has not been romantic? – was a consequence of the revolutions, more specifically of the failure of revolution in Europe; and this conservatism turned to the Middles Ages, not to antiquity; it glorified those centuries when the secular realm of worldly politics received its light from the splendour of the Church, that is, when the public realm lived from borrowed light. The men of the revolutions prided themselves on their ‘enlightenment’, on their intellectual freedom from tradition, and since they had not yet discovered the spiritual perplexities of this situation, they were still untainted by the sentimentalities about the past and traditions in general which were to become so characteristic for the intellectual climate of the early nineteenth century. When they turned to the ancients, it was because they discovered in them a dimension which had not been handed down by tradition – neither by the traditions of customs and institutions nor by the great tradition of Western thought and concept. Hence, it was not tradition that bound them back to the beginnings of Western history but, on the contrary, their own experiences, for which they needed models and precedents. And the great model and precedent, all occasional rhetoric about the glory of Athens and Greece notwithstanding, was for them, as it had been for Machiavelli, the Roman republic and the grandeur of its history.

Note: The problem of the absolute is a familiar one: it appears in another form in discussions of the foundations of ethics, in the problem of finding an absolute authority to back up moral obligations when belief in divine commands is lacking; in The Brothers Karamazov it is what perplexed Dimitri when he heard Father Paissy recount Ivan’s argument that immorality follows without belief in immortality.