[Also related: "Are You Sure You Hold to the Philosophy of Nonviolence?"]
In advocating the goal of removing the rich from power to create an egalitarian society are we advocating violence? This is a question we are frequently asked, especially by people who hold to Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence.
Before proceeding to give an answer to this important question, it is helpful to keep in mind that among those of us who want to remove the rich from power to create an egalitarian society--we're talking about hundreds of millions of Americans and many more world wide--there are disagreements about this question of violence. Therefore we should promote a serious and ongoing discussion among all of us to carefully identify the specific distinct concerns people have and thereby try to resolve our differences on the basis of our shared fundamental values of equality and mutual aid.
In this spirit, I (John Spritzler, the editor of this web site) am now going to write in the first person, and express merely my personal views here. I will be happy to create additional pages on this website for others to express their views on violence and revolution. Please email your thoughts to us for this purpose.
When I think about the question of nonviolence and revolution I think of it by imagining the following scenario, which I think captures the realistic difference between what we would do if we did or did not adopt the philosophy of nonviolence.
Imagine this scenario:
There is a very large and popular movement in the U.S. for egalitarian revolution, and the ruling class is about to order the military to violently repress the movement. (Of course I would much prefer that the ruling class give up its power voluntarily without a fight, in which case we could remove the rich from power without any violence at all. We ALL agree on that! But the question is, "What if they decide to use force to remain in power; what do we do THEN?" We can't put all our eggs in the "Let's hope they give up power without a fight" basket, can we?)
For the sake of visualizing this, let's say that, following massive demonstrations across the entire country for egalitarianism and for removing the rich from power there was a huge crowd of demonstrators in front of the White House demanding that the president and his/her staff leave the White House as an indication that the rich were indeed giving up their power.
Now let's say that instead of agreeing to give up their power, the rich instead have ordered the 82nd Airborne Division to protect the White House from the "mob." Furthermore, the rich have ordered the military to violently remove the huge crowd of people (like the cops violently removed the Occupy folks from Dewey Square in Boston and similar places around the country) as a demonstration that the egalitarian revolutionary movement has been decisively repressed and egalitarians should abandon hope that they will ever be able to prevail. In other words, this confrontation between the people and the military is a make-or-break moment for egalitarian revolution, and everybody knows it.
Now imagine that the demonstrators are right in front of the soldiers, wondering what will happen next. The demonstrators, of course, hope that the soldiers will refuse orders to attack them. The demonstrators have devoted much effort already to persuade soldiers to join, not attack, the egalitarian revolutionary movement. But the demonstrators know that the soldiers are under strict discipline and would be severely punished--perhaps even executed--if they refused orders and were found guilty of treason. The demonstrators know that even if most soldiers personally support egalitarian revolution, they might still obey orders. Furthermore, the demonstrators know that at least some soldiers as well as some (perhaps many) police (who, unlike soldiers, are trained and conditioned to attack their fellow citizens) would be very willing to attack the revolutionaries when the order is given.
Knowing all of this, and knowing that the order to attack is about to be given to the soldiers, a demonstrator who does not subscribe to the philosophy of nonviolence uses a bullhorn to address the soldiers. She says:
"Refuse orders to attack us. Instead, use your weapons to defend us against those who might violently attack us."
But immediately after this, another demonstrator, who does subscribe to the philosophy of nonviolence, takes the bullhorn and says to the soldiers:
"No, do not defend us with your weapons. We would rather be defeated than to succeed with violence!"
If you were one of these demonstrators, would you be angry or happy on hearing the second, nonviolent, demonstrator's speech?
I would be angry. Here's why. If the soldiers obeyed the nonviolent demonstrator's words, then the likely outcome would be the utter defeat of the egalitarian revolutionary movement. While some--perhaps most--of the soldiers would refuse the orders to attack the demonstrators, the remaining soldiers and probably a good number of police would indeed violently attack the demonstrators and thereby destroy the egalitarian revolutionary movement. Even if there were subsequent egalitarian revolutionary uprisings across the nation, the same scenario would presumably play out: military and police forces (even if only the minority willing to obey orders) would violently repress the egalitarians. After the defeat in front of the White House, soldiers who may previously have been considering disobeying orders would realize now that the revolutionary movement is not going to win and any soldier disobeying orders would be on the losing side and severely punished. Very few soldiers now would disobey orders.
As a result of the defeat of the egalitarian revolutionary movement the rich will remain in power. This means that mass murderers (literally!! [click here for details]) will remain in power. Countless innocent people will die as a result--people who would have lived had there been a successful egalitarian revolution.
Had the soldiers who supported the demonstrators obeyed the words of the first demonstrator, who did not adhere to the philosophy of nonviolence, then they would have made it clear that they would use their weapons not against the demonstrators but against anyone who attacked them violently--other soldiers or police. This alone would have persuaded any soldier or police officer inclined to attack the demonstrators to think twice about it. Yes, there might have been some violence if any soldiers did attack the demonstrators. The pro-revolutionary soldiers would have used violence to defend the demonstrators against those attacking them violently. So yes, the revolution would have used violence in self defense, in order to remove from power the mass murderers who control the United States. Countless lives would have been saved!
I hope this scenario helps to clarify what is actually at stake in the question of adhering or not adhering to the philosophy of nonviolence. I believe that Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence is very wrongheaded, and I spell out my reasons in "Are You Sure You Hold to the Philosophy of Nonviolence?"
Non-Violence or Non-Cruelty?
I think that for most people who say they believe in nonviolence, their actual concern is non-cruelty. The popularization of nonviolence as a philosophy in the United States rose dramatically only in recent years. Why? I think it is because in recent years we have witnessed violence that is in no way justified as self-defense. I am referring to violence against unarmed non-combatant civilians, violence usually labeled nowadays as terrorism: suicide bombings of people at a bus stop or a restaurant in Israel, planes crashing into the World Trade Towers on 9/11 and killing thousands of civilians, and so forth.
Some people, very wrongly, defend this kind of violence and call it "resistance." PDR--Boston disagrees. PDR--Boston says: 1) Terrorism is not resistance, and resistance is not terrorism. 2) Terrorism is cruelty; it is violence deliberately targeted against noncombatant civilians and it is morally wrong. 3) Violence that is not in self-defense* is morally wrong, and terrorist violence against noncombatant civilians is not in self-defense. 4) Terrorist violence does nothing--absolutely nothing--to weaken the forces of oppression; in fact it strengthens the oppressors by allowing them to claim they are the ones defending innocent people from harm. (I've been writing on this point for many years; here's one example [click here].)
The ruling elite have promoted the philosophy of nonviolence (for us, not them!) by making it seem as if violence equals terrorism, so if you're opposed to terrorism you must therefore, supposedly, subscribe to the philosophy of nonviolence. This is an ideological trap in which many people have fallen. Yes, terrorism is violence. But it is NOT violence in self-defense. Terrorism is cruelty. Rejecting terrorism does not necessarily mean rejecting violence in self-defense. It means rejecting cruelty.
There are situations (such as when one's government is controlled by mass murderers) when the actual choice is between violence in self-defense or the perpetuation of extreme cruelty to others.
The philosophy of non-cruelty says that it is morally right to use violence against a person if it is required to prevent that person from violently harming another person. If soldiers in the above scenario used violence (or the threat of it) against other soldiers or police who were violently attacking demonstrators, in order to protect the demonstrators, then they would be acting in compliance with the philosophy of non-cruelty.
The Baha'i faith, for example, opposes violence in revenge for evil, but says (in paragraph 5 here), "The law of the community will punish the aggressor but will not take revenge. This punishment has for its end to warn, to protect and to oppose cruelty and transgression so that other men may not be tyrannical."
John Lennon, who had a reputation as a follower of the philosophy of nonviolence nonetheless said the following very sensible thing:
"If I’m a revolutionary or we’re revolutionaries, we’re revolutionary artists, not gunmen. I believe in the Black Panther original statement, the 10 Point Program, which is not violent, which says to defend yourself against attack, I might consider that, but anything else I don’t consider.” [You can see him saying this in the documentary "U.S. versus John Lennon," at time point 23:46]
I call upon those egalitarians who presently subscribe to the philosophy of nonviolence, which says it is immoral to use violence even in self-defense) to reconsider. Isn't it all cruelty, rather than all violence, that you oppose? Isn't non-cruelty (doing whatever you can to prevent cruelty) a form of mutual aid?
Thoughts about Violence & Threats of Violence Occurring Today
The following was written in response to the recent attack on the Fox News commentator, Tucker Carlson, described here; the article's headline refers to "The Tucker Carlson Antifa Mob Attack."
We the have-nots have real enemies, and Tucker Carlson is one of them. And we have a moral right to remove our enemies from power so that they will not be able to do ANYTHING to abet the oppression of people.
The question is, What is the principle for us to follow in fighting back against our enemies that is both morally and practically sound?
To start with, if we do anything that is not morally justified, it will not be practically useful (certainly not in the long run) because our strength comes from having the support of the vast majority of people, and the vast majority of people won't support immoral acts.
The basic moral principle regarding violence or its threat is that it is only morally justified in self-defense, including collective self-defense, in other words defending oneself or other people against those using violence or its credible threat to force people to submit to unjust oppression or domination. I refer to this as the principle of non-cruelty, which I discuss at https://www.pdrboston.org/non-violence-or-non-cruelty-1 .
Sometimes, however, what is morally justifiable may not be practically useful. To be practically useful, violence (or its threat) must elicit the support (or at least friendly neutrality) of the majority of the have-nots. There is a useful guide for knowing how to gain this support: it's called "TIT FOR TAT."
TIT FOR TAT
The "TIT FOR TAT" guide says this: Respond to an enemy individual or group of individuals the same way this individual or group of individuals is acting towards you, neither more nor less violently. Thus:
If they are using only words (speech--as is the case with Tucker Carlson) then use only words in defense.
If they are using only the threat of violence, then use only the threat of violence in defense.
If they are using violence, then use violence (of the same degree of lethality) in defense.
Those who broke a front door and used the threat of violence against Tucker Carlson and his wife violated the TIT FOR TAT guide, and this explains the widespread revulsion among the have-nots for what they did, even among people who hate what Tucker Carlson is doing. It also explains why I think that the people who threatened Tucker Carlson were wrong.
Some people say, "TIT FOR TAT is not a good idea because it leaves a person 'one step behind,' so, for example, in a murder the victim is dead before being able to use any self-defense." This misses the point that TIT FOR TAT is a guide for how a social movement--our egalitarian revolutionary movement in particular--should act; it is about COLLECTIVE self-defense. It means that when the enemy is using lethal violence (i.e., killing people, murdering them) it is appropriate to use lethal violence in self-defense, and otherwise not. Obviously when lethal violence is imminent (as when somebody is about to be murdered) lethal violence in self-defense is appropriate. TIT FOR TAT does not say that one should allow oneself to be murdered before using whatever violence is necessary to defend oneself.
The Problem With Political Assassinations
Some people object to the TIT FOR TAT guide by arguing that politicians kill people with a pen (by signing oppressive legislations or government orders) without ever using an actual lethal weapon and therefore it is sometimes wise to assassinate them with a lethal weapon, in contrast to the TIT FOR TAT guide.
The historical evidence, however, is that when an individual or group of individuals assassinates a politician or any government or corporate leader in the name of fighting against oppression, it almost always ends up strengthening the ruling class because it enables it to turn the general public against the assassin(s). The REASON the ruling class can do this is because the assassin(s) violated the TIT FOR TAT guide.
What about the fact that that, as Woodie Guthrie put it in his song Pretty Boy Floyd the Outlaw, "Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen"?
People who use a pen to oppress people are using a pen, not a knife or a gun. Respond to such people with a pen, not a knife or a gun, or else risk losing the support of most of the have-nots.
Note, however, that the WAY a pen kills people is only indirectly, by authorizing other people (such as cops or military personnel) to use actual violence against people to oppress them (e.g., by forcibly evicting them from their home because they don't have the money to pay the rent, arresting them when they take food they need without paying for it because they don't have the money, forcing them to let scabs cross their picket line, etc.), and when people such as cops use actual violence this way (with billy clubs or pistols or even larger weapons when necessary) to oppress, then it is reasonable (it is indeed TIT FOR TAT) for people to use equivalent violence in self-defense against those people (cops or military personnel.) Of course it takes a lot of organization to use violence in self-defense this way, which is one of the things an egalitarian revolutionary movement is needed for.
When the public is informed about WHY oppressed people use violence in this manner (TIT FOR TAT) it maximizes the support they get from the general public when they use violence in self-defense. In contrast, when assassins assassinate an oppressive politician they minimize the public support they get, even though the politician may be extremely oppressive.
Postscript: The scenario I discuss above is, of course, just an imaginary scenario. The question of violence by oppressed people against oppressors arises in many other kinds of situations. I wrote about this question of violence in the context of the debate on guns and gun-control laws in my article, "Guns and the Working Class." (Go here to view an interesting interactive graphic titled "Defensive Gun Uses In the U.S." that shows thousands of examples of documented uses by civilians of licensed guns in self-defense.)
* Self-defense in this context means collective self-defense, in other words defending oneself or other people against those using violence or its credible threat to force people to submit to unjust oppression or domination.