Is Political Violence Wrong?

Two months ago, I was looking through some files of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union during the 1920s in the State Archive of the Russian Federation in Moscow. I didn’t find anything of use for my research. I was looking at short notes sent by the Court to the authorities of particular prisons informing them that such a person(s) had been sentenced to be shot, and that they should have the executions carried out. (The death penalty was common around the world at that time, and the Soviet Criminal Code of 1922 suggested it for a number of offences against the state and public order. Interestingly, murder was not punishable by death.) These were then followed by notes sent by the Court to a local morgue to request that the body or bodies be taken away. I was going to reel up the microfilm and move on, but I felt compelled to keep reading. The documents were formulaic and bureaucratic, which was precisely why they interested me. I was looking at the bureaucracy of killing.

I’m used to seeing protocols of meetings of the political police whereby lists of people have the word «Расстрелять» (shoot) written after their names, but these documents were more mundane, more ‘real’, and hence more disturbing. Maybe that day, or the day after, a man (these cases concerned men) was going to be walked out to a wall somewhere and his life would be deliberately taken. His lifeless body would fall to the ground, awkward and ugly. The body would have to be taken away and disposed of. I was a witness to part of this process, even after all these years. I’m used to reading about death through the discursive constructions utilized to justify, excuse, and perpetuate it, and that’s basically what my work is about. What I was reading here was the concrete reality of killing and its practicalities, and I was surprised that I had rarely thought about that aspect of Soviet state violence.

Violence is an almost permanent theme throughout history, and we continue to live in a time of considerable political violence. We are also now witnessing forms of violence in the 21st century European Union that we thought had been left behind: citizens taking to the streets to protest and finding themselves in conflict with the police.

The question that I’m asking here, and to which my response cannot be definitive, is whether instances of political violence can be judged to be right or wrong, justifiable or not. It’s not really a question about history as such, but I would like to bring my perspective to the question as an historian who works on the theme of violence.

Let me begin by asserting the legitimacy of the question: the answer is not obvious. We live in parts of the world where the dominant discourse typically (though, importantly, not always) postulates that violence is wrong, and condemns those perceived to be responsible. We assume that peace-keeping and peace negotiations are good things, and should happen. When the ‘Arab spring’ broke out two years ago, the initial reaction of the Western world was to stress the importance of the violence coming to an end, for there to be negotiations. When another deadly round of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict occurred last November, the priority of the world’s powers, again, was for the violence to end immediately, on both sides.

Political violence is, actually, very political. Some lives are more valuable than others. I don’t agree with this, but it is an unspoken assumption of international relations and even domestic politics. It appears that electorates in most advanced countries are not overly concerned about this.

We need to understand what the term ‘political violence’ actually means. The standard understanding is the infliction of bodily harm on a person, and perhaps also to property, for, or as a consequence of, a political purpose. There is, however, no reason why the definition should be confined to physical actions. Violence can also be considered to be structural, inscribed into the structures of socio-economic and political relationships. The concept of ‘structural violence’ can be traced to the sociologist Johann Galtung, and has been popularized more recently by the well-known intellectual as ‘objective violence.’[1] Galtung, in an influential 1969 article, argued that the absence of action can also be considered a form of violence when that action is possible, and necessary, to alleviate suffering and death.[2]

We all have some idea of the shocking realities of global income inequalities and the scale of poverty and hunger. In 2010, 925 million people were calculated to live in hunger.[3] This situation is perhaps indicative of a subconsciously racialized view of the world, despite all of our overt hostility to racism: the world’s poorest, after all, are not white. Poverty, however, is not ‘natural’ in some social-Darwinist sense. I don’t know how to tackle the problems of poverty, of unequal access to resources and wealth on a global scale, but I do know that they are solvable. We managed to put humans on the moon over forty years ago, and I am sure that we could sort out most of the problems on this planet if the political will were in existence. In reality it’s not, and so the problems persist.

If this constitutes violence – and I accept that it is – then who or what is to blame? I’m certainly no expert on this, and the answers are surely complex.  In addition to corrupt regimes in some poor countries, a foremost reason must surely be capitalism as it operates on a global scale. In this sense, capitalism kills more people than communism or fascism ever did because it helps to cause or sustain enormous structural violence, although one is not likely to read that in school history textbooks.

Capitalism – and the liberal-democratic political forms that allow it to flourish – is more deadly than communism or fascism (though conventional wisdom tells us otherwise). The latter two dictatorial, ‘totalitarian’ political forms are relatively unstable – inherently unstable in the case of fascism – or at least not likely to last for long if sustained violent campaigns are consistent features of their operation. Capitalism as a means of socio-economic and indeed political organization, by contrast, rests to a considerable extent on what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci explained through the concept of ‘hegemony’, by which he meant the ability of the dominant class to represent its interests in such a way that they are accepted as ‘natural’ or ‘common sense’ by society in general. The concept is similar to Michel Foucault’s explanation of how knowledge in any era or sphere is related to power in the form of discursive ‘regimes of truth.’ Living in the capitalist truth regime means that basic concepts of liberalism, private ownership of means of production, free trade, and the (endless) pursuit of personal profit as something to be valued positively, are generally held to be ‘natural.’ Of course, one can read or hear alternative viewpoints all the time, but we’re talking here about dominant ideas in a society.

This is not a left-wing rant. I may be a self-conscious socialist (though not a Marxist or any other qualifying ‘–ist’), but I think the above observations are fairly neutral. The reason I make them is to draw attention to the ways in which we perceive political violence, which again can be highly political.

Our perceptions of political violence are influenced to a very significant extent by our assessments of those who commit it, as opposed to the actual violence itself. When focus is put on the actual violence itself, regardless by whom committed, our attitudes do tend to change. For instance, the standard narrative of the Vietnam War is that TV and other media coverage of the actual violence effected a pivotal shift in American public opinion about the war. Overall, though, our societies tend to associate ‘crimes against humanity’ with oppressive, dictatorial regimes. To take the most obvious examples, the enormous violence committed by the Nazi and Stalinist regimes are inextricably linked with the persons of Hitler and Stalin in ways that are not rational, even (still) in scholarly works. It’s probably not an exaggeration to state that the general popular explanation of the Nazi and Stalinist phenomena is that Hitler and Stalin were terrible, evil men, perhaps with some personality disorders. By contrast, a political leader like Barack Obama is generally perceived to be very ‘human’, a family man who fist-pumps cleaners (I’m sure there just happened to be a camera there) and plays basketball. He is ‘one of us.’ Despite the increasing disquiet in some media quarters about American drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the CIA’s rationalization of these, or the devastating, even genocidal consequences likely to result from sanctions against Iran,[4] it was quite easy for most liberal-minded people to shelve these concerns – that is, if they were aware of them – and rejoice in his recent re-election.

Ok, now to try to work out where I’m going with this! Let’s return to the question. I contend that political violence is wrong, but that violence may be necessary under certain extreme circumstances for protection.

Political violence is rarely carried out for its own sake, or presented in terms of naked self-interest; it is usually justified by its practitioners as necessary for the salvation of a greater number of others. The Bolsheviks in early Soviet Russia provided the foremost expression of this paradox: we kill the class enemies, declared one Chekist (political police employee), because ‘we value and love life too much.’[5] The Bolsheviks believed that through violence in the service of establishing socialism, they would help to eradicate violence itself from human relations.

The problem of political violence is largely one of moral righteousness, as well as ideological and cultural arrogance: ‘the purpose absolves me of this crime against others.’ We see this consistently throughout history and in our own time. Violence may be effective. However, because violence strikes at the core of our moral being, because the act of severe violence is not assessed in rational, economistic terms by most people – and is actually utterly repulsive to most of us – anything resembling ‘excessive’ violence is not only counter-productive but morally corrosive.

Whatever later Marxist theorists of violence (such as Frantz Fanon or even Žižek) might say/have said about revolutionary violence as a means of developing the revolutionary subject’s consciousness,[6] violence (against people) corrodes the ideals of social justice, because it is the ultimate injustice. Yet social injustices form another large part of the problem of political violence: people don’t commit political violence because they are ‘evil’, or simply brainwashed tools of some crazy ideology, but usually because they are acting against some perceived injustice. (The fact that it is probably impossible to reason or negotiate with truly fanatical terrorists who fight for unacceptable causes should not obscure this completely.) This is why the standard calls for peace sometimes seem so empty: we must really examine and address the reasons for violence, insofar as we can and should. Furthermore, we must expand our understanding of violence to accommodate notions of structural injustices, and make this an issue of political weight. Democratically-elected politicians, after all, are obsessed with public opinion.

For left-wing revolutionary activists/thinkers and movements today, some of whom aim to re-apply and/or adapt the thought of such figures as Lenin,[7] the question of violence may become an immediate one, if it has not already. Should conflict with the police be encouraged? Should bank buildings be burned down? Should a revolution be physically fought for, come what may?

I think not, and I think the lessons of the past bear this out. Violence requires a ‘hardening’ of hearts, and it is not easy to ‘soften’ them again afterwards. Besides, it is much easier to destroy than to replace. The most profound revolutions tend to result from an evolutionary process, because they depend upon changes in ideas and culture. This is where a profound revolution must take place, and academics must play a crucial role in this. Why? Academics are paid to read, think, write, and teach. It’s a privilege, but it also brings responsibility. In some respects I think the discussion in the academic world about open access journal publishing and other means of better ensuring public return on taxpayers’ investment in academia is somewhat misplaced: we must accept that what we write in journals and monographs is not often appealing to the wider public, so we need to complement these bedrocks of academic endeavour with a greater willingness to communicate with a wide public audience through other, more accessible means, and to really adapt what we know and understand to what is currently important.


[1] Slavoj Žižek, Violence, London: Profile Books, 2008.

[2] Johann Galtung, ‘Violence, Peace, and Peace Research’, Journal of Peace Research, Vol.6, No.3 (1969), pp.167-191.

[5] Quoted in James Ryan, Lenin’s Terror. The Ideological Origins of Early Soviet State Violence, London and New York: Routledge, 2012, p.115.

[6] See Christopher Finlay, ‘Violence and Revolutionary Subjectivity: Marx to Žižek’, European Journal of Political Theory, Vol.5, No.4 (2006), pp.373-97.

[7] See for example Sebastian Budgen et al, Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

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11 Comments

Filed under Historiography, Soviet Union, Twentieth Century

11 responses to “Is Political Violence Wrong?

  1. This is a philosophical problem more than a political problem. It arises partly because we have failed to define our concepts of freedom. The Greeks (Aristotle/Plato) suggested that tyrannicide was acceptable and HItler`s war is a classic example of a war of liberation. Unfortunately for E Europe, notions of dictatorship replace Hitler`s Nietzschean fantasies with Lenin`s fantasies,which may or may not be based on Marx, depending on which authorities are consulted.
    When we have decided what the philosophical basis of life should be, ie beyond the merely material, then perhaps we can make a judgement. However it would seem that killing people because you dislike their politics or philosophy, or religion is inevitably counter-productive. As with capital punishment for murder, the dead have families and friends and if political etc killing becomes too much part of the routine maintenance of any regime, then resistance will arise to the point of war or revolution. It is not possible to create a stable, democratic and fair society by undemocratic and unfair means. Lenin could never see this,and nor can Al-Qaeda. Nor can the American Right. What capitalism itself does or does not do is questionable but in the end comes down to whether the people living under it get enough food to eat and feel (rightly or wrongly) that they and/or their children have a chance to develop as they would like.

  2. Alan Tennyson

    Thanks for the article. Non violent resistance to evil, accutely highlights the injustice and consolidates support. Tolstoy’s non violent resistance to evil describes this better than I ever could. You want to further your cause? Throw yourself on their bayonets

  3. Talk about drawing a long bow Pat. The argument that ‘Capitalism – and the liberal-democratic political forms that allow it to flourish – is more deadly than communism or fascism’ is pretty weak. Using your standards of evidence I could just as easily claim that the inequality that engenders this ‘structual violence’ is not a product of ‘capitalism’ at all but a lack thereof; failure by the third world to successfully implement capitalism and liberal democracy themselves. Capitalism and the liberal democracy that underpins it isn’t perfect but is closely associated with unprecedented growth in human quality of life (whether measured by HDI, life expectancy, personal freedoms or disposable income) and not at the expense of others either. China is catching up with the west precisely because it has implemented capitalism. In so doing, it has raised the standard of living for more people more quickly polity in history. “a foremost reason must surely be capitalism as it operates on a global scale. In this sense, capitalism kills more people than communism or fascism ever did because it helps to cause or sustain enormous structural violence”. So, what you’re saying is that because people are still living in poverty and Capitalism is the dominant model worldwide, captialism therefore causes poverty? In order to make that claim (and fend off accusations of causation/correlation fallacy) you would have to point to evidence which shows a positive link between capitalism/liberal democracy and increased poverty. Much of the evidence however, points in precisely the opposite direction; a steep decline in *global* poverty begining around the same time globalization started to take off and even steeper declines for those polities that have implemented it themselves.

    http://filipspagnoli.files.wordpress.com/2008/08/numbers-below-1-25-poverty-line.png?w=464&h=411

    • James Ryan

      Thanks for your comments, Fergal. The point that you make is very important, and my piece is unbalanced because I didn’t make it – it turns out it might have been more of a left-wing rant than I realized. I have two points to make.

      First, on your criticism of my ‘standards of evidence’, I write pieces for this blog as a release from the rigours of academic writing, where I am always in fear of asserting something without sufficient evidence. My blog pieces are intended as short opinionated reflections that I hope will generate discussion, and I’m not going to provide much evidence to back up my points as a result. People may disagree with those points, and we can discuss those in the comments section, as we are now doing.

      Second, although I fully accept your point that reduction in poverty has accompanied capitalist modernization – and the evidence is very clear on that – and although I accept that I should have mentioned this to balance my piece, this does not challenge my argument concerning capitalism (as it operates on a global scale, and it is global) as a form of structural violence, and that violence as more deadly than fascism or communism. That argument does not rest upon causation, as you believe. I did not claim that capitalism causes poverty and poverty-related deaths. My claim is based on the discussion around Galtung’s discussion of structural violence in the form of non-actions that are possible and necessary. I advise that you read Galtung’s article, if you ahve not already done so. That, of course, rests upon the assumption that those not directly responsible for poverty are morally obligated to eradicate it, but I don’t have a problem with that premise. In analogous terms, if you see someone drowning in a calm lake, and you are a good swimmer, and there is no-one else around, are you not morally obligated to help? However, ‘capitalism’ as a system is of course not an innocent bystander when it comes to global poverty. Think of the role of multi-nationals in exploiting natural resources in third-world countries, in collaboration with the governments of those countries, at the expense of the people of those countries.

  4. Interesting post.

    The premise that tolerating poverty in other continents is a form of violence because there may be some way for us to deal with it seems to me to be, let’s say, unhelpfully abstract.

    Violence is what you very eloquently describe in your first two paragraphs, the deliberate, targeted infliction of death and injury on other people.

    Philosophically, I would say that violence is an evil but it is an evil that to a greater or lesser extent we must live with. If police forcibly arrest a violent criminal, that is a form of violence. But not many people would say that it is inherently morally wrong.

    Political violence it seems to me should be judged by a number of factors – given that we would prefer if it did not occur at all but it does and will continue to.

    First, the cause; is violence the only way of ending a particular injustice, is it in self-defence? What ends does the cause seek? Will attaining these ends result in more or less violence than inaction?

    Second; the scale and intensity of the violence – rioting like that we see in Greece (or Belfast) usually destroys only property so is of a far less grave moral order than say assassination or bombing or executions. So the question is, is minimum necessary force being used?

    Third, the victims of violence; were they also armed? Did they pose a mortal threat to those who killed or injured them? Were they killed on purpose or accidentally?

    In the case of the Bolshevik executions you describe above, I would suggest they fail all three tests that may palliate political violence – the ends were dictatorship, the violence was lethal and the numbers of victims very large, the victims were unarmed and defenceless prisoners.

    • James Ryan

      Thanks for your comments, John. Maybe I presented the concept of ‘structural violence’ in an ‘unhelpfully abstract’ way, but I think the concept is very valid and recommend that you read Galtung’s article, if you have not already. Whether or not you agree with this idea, I think it should be engaged with.

      Regarding your final paragraph, the ends of the Bolsheviks were certainly not dictatorship. Perhaps the single key theme of Soviet history is the dialectic of intention and reality, but the Bolsheviks envisaged a stateless, peaceful communist society, a ‘beautiful peaceful future’ as Lenin put it. We simply can’t understand their practice of violence without understanding how the ideology of Marxism-Leninism fuelled it. Finally, not all victims of the Bolsheviks were unarmed and defenceless: they fought a very real Civil War from 1918-20.

      • James, first of all apologies if my first reply as a little abrupt. I enjoyed your article.

        In the short term though, the Bolsheviks’ end was dictatorship of their party. And of course they never really got beyond that stage. Personally I wouldn’t excuse them for what they did on the basis of what they thought they were doing. Doubtless they killed their enemies in combat too but the victims described above – prisoners to be shot -were certainly defenceless and posed no threat at the time of their killing.

        I don’t buy into the idea that economic injustice is a kind of violence. It may be – it often is – backed up by violence , but calling say income disparity ‘violence’ just confuses the issue I think. If injustice is a legitimate justification for political violence is another question though.

  5. John, your reply wasn’t at all abrupt. Just to clarify: I’m not excusing the Bolsheviks either – I’m not a Leninist sympathiser. I just think it’s important to understand why people or movements engage in political violence. Certainly party dictatorship was their medium-term goal, but as a means to a higher end.

    To clarify as well: the concept of structural violence shouldn’t be understood in too elastic a sense; it doesn’t include all forms of economic injustice. It’s about political and socioeconomic structures that serve to sustain – perhaps even cause – violations of pretty fundamental rights, such as the right to life, the right to adequate nutrition and medical care, and even the right to education.

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