The question of violence

Howie Chodos howie at
Fri Jun 9 10:37:33 MDT 1995

Justin wrote:

>This isn't up to your usual, Howie.
>1. "Self-defensive" or reactive violence can and indeed does in fact
>sometimes l,ead to insurrection and revolutionary violence. This of the
>worker's response to the Bloody Sunday massacre on 1905, or indeed the
>process Trotsky describes so brilliantly inn the Feb-Oct. pewriod in 1917,
>with the defensive reactionb to Kornilov, etc.
>2. "Self defense" is not a neutral principole. A rapist cannot plead self
>defense in his use of violence against a woman who is resisting him.
>Likewise the ruling classes has no right of self-defense to protect
>themselves aginst resistance to their wrongs. (As individuals they may
>have a right of self-defense against unjust or excessive violence.)

You may be right, Justin, but I'd still like to push this a bit further.

What I was trying to say was not that in the process of struggle that
reactive violence can never develop into a revolutionary situation. I was
arguing that there is a difference between justifying violence on the ground
of self-defense, and justifying the use of violence to enact social change.
The key to any transition from one to the other is the recognition that
there is something about the system which will not go away by itself. It is
not enough simply to defend oneself, but one has to be rid of the cause of
the problem. This is the analogy that I was trying to get at with Lenin's
argument that trade unionism represents a (necessary, of course) defensive
posture, but that it does not by itself facilitate an awareness of the need
to transform the system. Similarly, defensive violence can be part of the
development of a crisis situation, but will generally not produce a
revolutionary transformation of the social order.

The second point I was trying to make concerned the possible educational
value of isolated acts of violence committed in order to help people see the
"true nature" of the system. If we are trying to do more than simply preach
to those who are already convinced that the state needs to be overthrown, is
an instrument of class dictatorship, etc., we need to recognize that most
people start from a position which accepts the legitimacy of state action in
some sense. It was for this reason that I suggested that to hope that
"exemplary" acts of violence against the state would do something to change
their appreciation of the nature of the state is illusory. I may have
over-extended the notion of "self-defense" here, but I was trying to suggest
that someone who is not convinced the state is the instrument of oppression
could perceive state suppression of terrorist violence as a legitimate act
of "self-defense".

It was not my intention to provide the state with grounds for claiming
"self-defense" as it suppresses legitimate opposition. I argued that we need
to push as far with non-violent means as possible to achieve our goals, and
that then, if the state intervenes with violence, we are in a good poosition
to argue that such violence is anti-democratic, and any response to it,
including a violent one, may be justified. I agree that "the ruling classes
has no right of self-defense to protect themselves aginst resistance to
their wrongs", but this does not solve the problem of how to convince people
of this fact. It is precisely because self-defense is not a universal
principle, but must be argued with respect to the concrete circumstances,
that we cannot hope to convince people of the need for revolutionary change
on the basis of the right to self-defense alone.

I hope this is a bit clearer.

Howie Chodos

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