Conflict and Violence in Marxism

Chris Burford cburford at
Fri Mar 10 17:00:13 MST 1995

Is anyone studying conflict and violence in Marxism?

It seems timely to raise the question. Despite the mind-numbing
effect of violence, it is possible to think about it constructively.

I recently stumbled across the Monthly Review Press 1987 book by
Hal Draper, "The 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat' from Marx to
Lenin, which gives a much more nuanced understanding of Marx's
use of the term in the later 1840's. Essentially it argues that
at the time, "like the word 'government', 'dictatorship' could
be filled with many contents".

I continue to think, despite some weaknesses and despite subsequent
events, Mao's 1957 essay "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions
Among the People", was a very creative response to the Hungarian
uprising. For me it not only says there will be ceaseless
contradictions under socialism, but that there is a duty on Marxists
to handle the numerous contradictions among the people non-antagon-

That obligation is one that need not wait for socialism. Indeed unless it
is put into practice among us under capitalism, any prospect of socialism
would seem distant.

*Conflict Theory*

There is a fast developing area of conflict theory, which it seems to me
should be studied, and can be integrated, with Marxism. Although
at first sight it comes from rather reductionist individualist psychology,
in fact like Marxism, it believes that people often take up positions in
relation to their self-interests.

Cut-down versions of conflict theory can easily be found in paperbacks at
travel centres, or in individual chapters in teach-yourself-management

Essentially it argues that conflict is a fact of life. And that properly
handled it is creative rather than destructive. It suggests that  too high
a level of conflict is of course destructive for a group, but that too low
a level can be stultifying.

One of the roles that Jon plays in this list, is
to give it a periodic stir, (albeit somewhat more gently than Ralph.)

One of my hopes is that we can return to the Labour Theory of Value but
at a level of conflict which is creative.


I think of this as severly antagonistic conflict aimed at the disablement
if not the death of another. It need not be only physical. Flaming is
a rather vivid metaphor.

Although psychiatrists have no monopoly of knowledge about violence, I
thought it may be helpful to share some approaches.

One policy document I checked, starts off
>>>Violence is a way some people have of expressing feelings of anger,
fear or despair. <<<

Another document on the therapy of male violence notes "The process would
entail moving the man from guilt to responsibility for his actions. This
would be achieved through exchanging violent behaviour, low self-esteem,
poor expectations etc. with self-respect, value and acceptance of the man
by me and ultimately by himself. If a man [however] has used violence as
a major expression of himself and power, especially over a period of years,
then it would be difficult to get him to give this up. He does after all
know that it works (in the short term) in many ways, so it is vital that it
is replaced by something else."

If someone believes they are in the right to assert themselves over
someone else, they are more likely to behave violently. One of the best
reasons for thinking you have that right is to believe you are a wronged
victim, and only  springing back to your rightful stature. It is
liberating and exhilarating.

"Communists are dead men on holiday".
"The violence of the oppressed should not be equated with the violence of
the oppressor". Nor should it.

The twelfth century tale the Dream of Rhonabwy, describes in allegorical
form the violence between the anglo-saxons, my forbears, and the Welsh.
Owein and King Arthur play a long and solemn chess-like game, interrupted by
the periodic news that Arthur's pages are stoning and killing the
best of Owein's ravens. Three times Owein asks Arthur to call off the men;
each time Arthur replies only, "Your move".

"Then Owein told his page, 'Go, and where you see the fiercest fighting,
raise the standard, and let God's will be done'.

"The page went off to where the fighting was going badly for the
ravens; he raised the standard, and at that the ravens rose, full of anger
and violence and *joy* as well, to let the wind into their wings and to cast
off fatique. Having recovered strength and the will to fight they swooped
down in anger *and joy* on the men who had earlier inflicted wounds and
injuries and losses upon them. Some carried off heads, some eyes, some ears,
some arms ..."

Who hasn't felt joy at the thought of breaking through frustration
like that. "Revolutions are festivals of the oppressed".

And what person has not wondered quietly about the limits of
their own possible violence.

Ralph it seems to me has spoken for all of us by presenting the
question of violence in the middle of this list. And suddenly it became
a bar full of  people having their heads kicked in.

I was contacted by someone interested in my background, who is studying
among other things Christopher Bollas. Bollas is a psychoanalyst who has
won respect in cross-fertilizing US and English psychotherapy. I heard a
memorable lecture by him on the Totalitarian Mind.
He suggested that the desire to project out onto others, and then
obliterate, wipe out, erase and destroy from consciousness the person
carrying for us that projection, is on a psycological continuum with
political totalitarianism.

There is undoubtedly a desire among left groups to believe that they
will be a nirvana of sibling unity, with all the horrible aspects of
humanity represented by the bourgeoisie. Within Marxism, the horrible bits
are projected onto Trotskyists, or anarchists, or Stalinists, whoever
represents the other. It is almost racist.

The truth  as Louis suggests, is more usually grey. Such an approach
in analysing the different currents of Marxism is surely obligatory.

Yet the desire to obliterate all the frustrations can be overwhelming.

Ralph wrote late on 18th Feb 1995:

"In 1995 neither you nor I are going to have much of a choice of
what or whom we suffer.  Those who suffered under Mussolini or
Stalin had no choice, and neither do we.  If I did, there would be
a whole lot of riff-raff of all stripes that would disappear, and
I wouldn't have to worry about choosing the less loathesome."

Where would they disappear to, if not the equivalent of the Gulag
Archipelago? Stalin suddenly becomes more comprehensible.

For our own sakes, it is time we concretely analyse the shades of grey
in Stalin too, as well as in ourselves.

With capitalism having just slipped on a banana skin as it comes up to the
finishing post, do we need to sink into despair, and violent recriminations?

Marxism provides the basis for a vivid critique of capitalism. It is
not a theory to prove that all the wickedness in the world is the respon-
of Them out there, while we are an island of peace.

We need conflict. The question is:  is the conflict creative?

Chris Burford                               "Only connect..."

     --- from list marxism at ---


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