The question of violence -Reply

Fri Jun 9 14:30:42 MDT 1995

Howie's post, appended, makes a lot of sense to me.

Also, it seems to me that Matt is arguing that the social
transformation is the greatest good, so that the morality of means is
determined by the efficacy of means, or moral rightness = furthering
the goal of social transformation.

I don't think I can go along with that, although I don't have any
grand theory of morality to justify my position.

In fact, I now admit that one of the reasons that I work for a
bloodless transformation is that I think a bloody one may cause more
suffering than it is likely to save.  Especially in light of the
comments of others on the list about the counter-productive effects
of violence and the real probability that socialists today are not
likely to win a war in most places, and even if they did, a desirable
social transformation is unlikely to result.

Does this mean that I could find violence justified *if I really
believed* that its good effects would outweigh its bad?  I just don't
know.  But I think it unlikely that I'll be faced with such a


>>> Howie Chodos <howie at>  6/9/95, 10:37am >>>
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
"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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