The question of violence

Howie Chodos howie at
Wed Jun 7 23:09:21 MDT 1995

Some of what follows may already have been argued. I am just getting caught
up with the several inter-twining threads on morality, violence, and support
for Mumia Abu-Jamal.

To begin, it strikes me that the minimal Marxist position is that the use of
violence as a conscious intrument of social transformation cannot be ruled
out in advance. We would like to do it peacefully but, to be frank, we think
that fairly unlikely. There are, in general, three basic justifications that
seem to me to be available for the use of violence. First, that it is
necessary in order to achieve social change; second, that it has an
educational value; third that it is necessary in the face of the onslaught
by the ruling class.

A number of other people have made the argument that in the foreseeable
future there is little hope for insurrectionary violence to be successful.
This means that one cannot today call people to the barricades in the
expectation of overthrowing the dominant class. This rules out justification
number one for the time being. I find justification number two unacceptable
under any circumstances that I can now imagine. To say that the use of
violence today is necessary in order to educate people about the evils of
the system is to behave in a substitutionist fashion. One takes unto oneself
the right to maim and kill in the name of educating the great unwashed.

This leaves self-defense, which seems to me to be widely supported both for
individuals and for collectivities of various kinds (eg. nations). It is
important, I think, to note that justifications one and three for the use of
violence involve different kinds of arguments, and do not automatically
follow from each other. To argue that it is right to defend yourself against
the abuses of capitalism does not automatically entail a belief that it is
equally justified to use violence to overthrow capitalism. It does not even
entail a commitment to the need to change the system. One could fight an
injustice on purely liberal grounds and retain the belief that these are the
exceptions rather than the rule.

And this strikes me as important in cases like the one to which our
attention has been drawn, Mumia Abu-Jamal. I am learning about it in detail
for the first time, but what seems to me to be the key issue is saving his
life, and the broadest support for him would seem to become possible when
the injustice is understood as one of flagrant judicial misconduct. In this
sense, at one level it doesn't matter against whom the injustice has been
committed. I would therefore differ here from those who have argued that we
must support him because of his politics. His politics, or his race, or the
combination of the two, may explain why he was singled out, and the extent
of his mistreatment. But it should not be the cause of our anger nor the
sole basis for our support. I think this was the case that was first put by
Lenin in 1902 in _What Is To Be Done?_ and remains valid. Revolutionaries
must respond to all instances of oppression regardless of who is the victim.
We may be able to also explain why certain people are the victims of the
system, but agreement on the why is not required before acting together to
alleviate particular injustices.

Howie Chodos

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