The question of violence

jwalker jwalker at
Thu Jun 8 07:23:44 MDT 1995

Mr Chodos,

Let me second your thoughtful post.  I do have a question or two, though:

On Thu, 8 Jun 1995, Howie Chodos wrote:
> 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.

You're right to separate 1 and 3, for the reason you note, and also
because just establishing that violence is necessary
to achieve social change -- even good social change -- isn't yet to show
that it's justified.

> 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.

About the self-defense justification: standard cases of justified use of
lethal force in self-defense essentially involve a reasonable beliefs
that one is threatened with death or serious harm, which justifies use of
such force against the agency doing the threatening.

I wonder whether *this* sort of model will do as a justification for
revolutionary violence.

Most people who are screwed by capitalism aren't threatened with death or
anything approaching it.  They're exploited and alienated. Do these
abuses justify a lethal response? But of course capitalism does kill many
people, through starvation, etc. Perhaps others, not threatened with
death, can act with a self-defense justification in the stead of those
who are so threatened?

Another of my qualms has to do with those who would be the object of
revolutionary violence -- presumably capitalist minions like police.
Many cops may be bastards, sure.  But the cops aren't the ones doing the
exploiting, alienating, and threatening some with death that characterize
capitalism.  So does self-defense justify violence directed against

(Bastards or no, I think a recent post (forgot whose it was) was
right in saying that for most cops it's just a job.  They might easily
have ended up on the shop floor.  In some ways they're victims of
capitalism too.)

Maybe just war theory, which Justin mentioned, would be a good place to

> 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.

Nicely put.

John D. Walker
Department of Philosophy
UNC-Chapel Hill
jwalker at

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