[Marxism] Theory of Violence

daniel.evans920 at ntlworld.com daniel.evans920 at ntlworld.com
Sun Aug 26 07:11:11 MDT 2007

Hi Haines,

Thanks for taking the time to give me your thoughts on this.  I am glad you think the syllogism is valid.  I think it’s been a long time coming.

You talk of the state being superstructural and I’m not sure where you are locating the government.  I’m not sure the state is superstructural.  I think it is the military instrument of the ruling class and definitely uses violence as well as force.  For me the base is the class struggle and the superstructure is the ideological reflection of it, the consciousness of it, so I would probably locate the government there moulding the state to the ever-changing interests of the ruling class but sometimes being deflected a little from its course by the struggle of the workers.  The ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class as we know (they’ve got all the money) but you seem to have the government down as neutral.

I’m not sure why you say that only units of a certain size can engage in politics.  Didn’t the feminists used to say the personal is political and isn’t the patriarch usually the `harmony-preserving institution’ in the family?

I think you can have politics in archaic pre-state societies, especially in times of hardship, in fact I think you can have politics in monkey troops.

As far as your wife’s violent assault is concerned, politically she may believe that leaving dirty dishes around the house for her to clear up is not fair and having explained that to you a thousand times she may have felt the need to resort to violence to get that point across.  I would have to study the concrete circumstances to be sure.  Needless to say, resorting to violence is a dangerous step as, like war, it has its own logic which can easily get away from its initiator.

The observation that violence is the continuation of politics by other means I did point out is not a moral argument and does not mean that violence is wrong in any situation.  I’m merely trying to identify what it is.

>Besides my question about your syllogism itself, I'm uncomfortable
>seeing a syllogism being used as a substitute for social analysis. In
>other words, a syllogism cannot yield a social "theory", and formal
>logic can't be applied to such emergent processes as human
>society. We can't generate truths simply by manipulating words or
>by playing with logic. This, I believe, is a fundamental Marxist

I can’t imagine Marxism objecting to the drawing of conclusions.  Of course, as soon as a conclusion is drawn, especially in social sciences, it immediately becomes historical in a sense and the question becomes where the politics come from in the here and now.  Marxism has the best answers to this question but having established the fact of the conclusion, Marxism’s job is surely made just that little bit easier.  The dialectic is that we could never have come to this now seemingly obvious and long over due conclusion without Marxism in the first place.

The idea that violence is the continuation of politics surely cuts through a lot of obscurantist nonsense about violence being the product of human nature or evil or mental illness etc. just as Clausewitz clarified the nature of war.

I sense a moral objection as opposed to a reasoned one Haines and I am certainly very grateful for your thoughts.  What do you think?

Best wishes,


> From: Haines Brown <brownh at hartford-hwp.com>
> Date: 2007/08/25 Sat PM 07:44:01 BST
> To: marxism at lists.econ.utah.edu
> CC: marxism at lists.econ.utah.edu
> Subject: Re: [Marxism] Theory of Violence
> Daniel,
> Allow me to comment on your little syllogism from what I hope is a
> conventionally Marxist viewpoint.
> > I believe that there is an unfinished syllogism in the work of
> > Clausewitz which if he had completed would have made him even more
> > renowned today than he already is.
> > 
> > He made two statements about war, politics and violence when he
> > perhaps should have made three.  He said: war is the continuation of
> > politics by other means and war is violence.  As he was writing
> > about war it is understandable that he did not think to make the
> > concluding statement: violence is the continuation of politics by
> > other means.
> > 
> > The implications are that all violence, every single example of it
> > however seemingly insignificant, is an expression of or a
> > continuation of an individual's, group's, organisation's or state's
> > politics.  From wife-beating to rape to mugging to gang wars to
> > battering protestors to terrorism to world war, all are explained by
> > this theory.  Of course, it doesn't absolve the researcher from
> > painstakingly getting to the roots of the perpetrators politics in
> > each separate instance but it gives the framework from which to
> > begin.
> The syllogism of the second paragraph above seems to me valid enough
> in a general sense. However, a Marxist quibble would seem to be that
> "politics" can refer to action by either the "state" or by
> "government", and the difference is significant. The state is
> understood to be the superstructural institution made necessary by
> class contradictions. Because there are class contradiction, the state
> must ultimately use force to maintain order and otherwise ensure the
> conditions of capitalism. The state, of course, uses a variety of
> means to that end (such as propaganda), but arguably it ultimately
> comes down to force (not "violence").
> The "government", on the other hand, is an institution required to
> ensure social order. It is often thought of as addressing emergent
> needs that are specific to a social whole, but modern governments also
> aim to protect or promote the conditions necessary for the viability
> of the social whole, and that means addressing the needs of the
> citizens themselves (this is a basic difference between the feudal and
> the capitalist systems). For example, the use of safety and health
> regulations (accompanied by forceful sanctions) for the workplace or
> to ensure that the food we eat is not poisonous
> So I'd prefer your conclusion to be: "In societies having social
> contradictions, force is the ultimate form of state action". This,
> I take it, is a pretty conventional Marxist view. As for governments
> employing force, I'll come back to that below, but it is not a
> specifically Marxist issue.
> I don't know that I would agree with the inferences you draw from your
> syllogism. One is that all violence is political or perhaps that all
> politics is violent. However, this depends on just what we mean by
> "violence" and "politics".
> If my wife pops me on the side of the head, that is a violent act, but
> is our marriage a political unit? Politics conventionally refers to
> the institution associated with large social wholes. My wife's blow
> may have been only a result of her frustration with me, and in fact it
> could be destructive of domestic harmony. Why then do we associate
> politics with large social units? I suspect it is for the reason I
> mentioned above, which is that it applies to units of sufficient size
> and complexity that there emerge needs of the whole and institutions
> to address those needs. So a family, for example would not qualify,
> for the needs of the whole (household order) generally reduce to the
> needs of the individuals that make it up and there is no
> harmony-preserving intitution. While one might extend the
> word politics to cover any social relation (even, for example, in
> archaic pre-state societies), that is so unconventional as to require
> justification.
> We must also be careful of the word violence. In my dictionary it has
> two meanings. The first seems to refer to action that is not
> constrained. A violent storm, for example. But this is so general a
> meaning, having no necessary social or moral implications, that I
> don't believe this is the meaning you intend.
> The second meaning is, if I may paraphrase, an unjust injury. This
> does have social implications, for it depends on social norms
> (justice). It implies an organized society with an instituionalized
> sanction of norms rather than, say, my wife popping me on the side of
> the head. Certainly an individual is not a political entity by
> definition, and it seems to strain the word politics to apply it to a
> small group, where there may be little institutionalization and where
> the interest of the whole generally do not prevail over those of its
> members. If we use words in unconventional ways, we should offer some
> compelling justification for doing so, for our aim is to communicate.
> You seem to want to universalize the notion of violence to be the
> equivalent of "force", but the dictionary does not agree, for force
> has no social or moral implication, nor does it imply lack of
> constraint. If I force the door to close, is that a violent or
> political act? If the government arrests a murderer, is that act
> unconstrained or illicit?  All governments sanction certain uses of
> force, such as penalizing anti-social behavior or in the defense of
> its citizens. If one feels any use of force is wrong in any situation,
> that is an unconventional position that needs justification. 
> Besides my question about your syllogism itself, I'm uncomfortable
> seeing a syllogism being used as a substitute for social analysis. In
> other words, a syllogism cannot yield a social "theory", and formal
> logic can't be applied to such emergent processes as human
> society. We can't generate truths simply by manipulating words or
> by playing with logic. This, I believe, is a fundamental Marxist
> objection.  
> -- 
>        Haines Brown, KB1GRM
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