Tag Archives: Lenin

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.


Filed under Historiography, Soviet Union, Twentieth Century

Why History Matters

By James Ryan

Last August, I went to Krakow on holiday. It was the perfect city-break: a beautiful old city, bustling but small enough to walk around comfortably; welcoming but foreign enough to realize that you’re away from home; hot and sunny in summer; and cheap Ryanair flights. I didn’t deliberate for long when choosing a holiday destination, and the deciding factor wasn’t just a long-held desire to visit Poland. It was Auschwitz. Located about fifty kilometres from the city centre, or an hour’s bus journey, lies the town of Oświęcim, renamed Auschwitz by its German occupiers during the Second World War. It is the most infamous place on earth.

I work as an academic historian, researching state violence in Soviet Russia/the Soviet Union. I have spent almost a decade attempting to understand why and how highly idealist political activists come to practice and justify violence on an enormous scale. It makes sense that I had a strong desire to visit Auschwitz (even on my holidays). History for me – as for probably every historian in the world – isn’t just work, it’s a passion. I realized this when I was in school and wondering what I wanted to be when I grew up. For some reason, I really liked learning all those dates from the Renaissance period, and thought it would be a lot of fun to teach history myself. Then I thought it would be even better if I could continue studying it as well as teaching, and become a lecturer. When I mentioned this to my teacher, he told me that I would need to do a PhD. I didn’t know what a PhD was, but quickly found out that it came with a title and decided that I wanted one!

The reason I mention this is not narcissism, but because within a few months of having my professional life planned out in my head, I began to have serious doubts. I liked history, but I wasn’t sure what the point of it was. Why not try to become a ‘real’ doctor, or a psychologist, or something more practical? Or, if I did want a more academic route, why not study something more intellectually stimulating, like philosophy? I’m glad now that I stuck with my original instinct, but those doubts have had an important effect on me. They have ensured that I have always approached the discipline of history with the belief that it should be more than just fun (and anyway I’d rather watch a film or sport for fun), that it should yield important information and understanding, that it does actually matter.

So, does history really matter, and if so, why? There is, unfortunately, a particular need for historians to address this question today. In a climate of financial cut-backs, disciplines in the humanities are more likely to be targeted than the salaries and bonuses of university presidents/vice-chancellors and their retinue. In Ireland, the Department of Education is considering the removal of history as a compulsory subject up to junior cycle (GCSE equivalent) in secondary school, which would likely mean that a majority of Irish students would enter adulthood without any meaningful understanding of national, or global, history. In this context, on the pages of Ireland’s leading broadsheet in recent months appeared an article that argued not only that history is nothing more than mythology, but that it’s actually harmful (The Irish Times, 9 June 2012 ).

It might sometimes be thought that historians live in the past, desperate to work out the details of events long since completed. This would be a mistake, for history as an academic discipline has meaning through the present and its effects on the future. Each of us is an historical being. We can only live in the present, we can only envisage the future, and we can only draw on the past for experience and guidance. We are narrative beings, constructing stories about ourselves in an effort to create a sense of individual identity, with our sense of ‘who we are’ derived from who and where we have come from, what we have done, and what we would like to do. Most of us like to think that life isn’t just a series of random events, that there is some sense of ‘destiny’ or purpose to the universe and our individual lives. What is true of us individually is also true of us collectively, however the collective is defined.

History is certainly potentially dangerous, and one can argue intelligently that historical awareness is perhaps more dangerous than historical ignorance. The poet and philosopher Paul Valery (1871-1945) once observed: ‘History is the most dangerous product the chemistry of the intellect has ever concoted…It sets people dreaming, it intoxicates them, spawns in them false memories…keeps old wounds open’. History is often, and has often been, used and abused by those in positions of political power.

However, we cannot avoid the past and should not attempt to do so, for it has formed us in ways that we might not even realize. Our cultures, our political institutions, our political attitudes, our political ideologies, and our individual identities are all bound up with the past. For example, our cherished ‘Western’ institutions and concepts of ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’ and ‘human rights’ are historically conditioned, and it is useful for us to understand their origins. If modern democracy owes its origins to the French Revolution, then it arose with ‘the despotism of freedom against tyranny’, to use Robespierre’s words, the same words that one Bolshevik deliberately chose as the title of a newspaper article in 1918 when justifying the Bolshevik dictatorship in Russia. Perhaps the most striking and disturbing reality of post-Second World War global history is the willingness of the self-conscious champions of freedom, led by the ‘land of the free’ itself, to risk global annihilation in pursuit of this ‘freedom’. They should have learned their history.

What does it mean to learn from the past? The famous expression of the historian George Santayana, that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, is frequently cited in defence of History. It is, in itself, inadequate.

First, historians don’t just remember the past, they interrogate it. We all remember the past, but it is how we remember it that matters. It is a natural instinct to suppress bad memories, and national histories are often remembered in more or less sanitized, or at least politicized, form. This is sometimes quite deliberate, as indicated by a commission that was established in Russia by President Medvedev in 2009 (and dissolved earlier this year) to combat historical ‘falsification’, but which was seen by many historians and others as a means of enforcing a whitewash of the activities of the Red Army during the Second World War. The purpose is to allow citizens to tap into a sense of national belonging, of national achievement and triumph, to generate loyalty to the state, and to further legitimize the incumbents of state power. The discipline of History, by contrast, should teach us the complexity of the past and, by extension, help us to appreciate the complexity of our own times. The greatest danger associated with history is not historical awareness itself, but the absence of a well-educated, well-trained, professional, independent, and articulate historical profession that assumes the responsibility of enlightening (and when necessary correcting) such awareness.

Second, Santayana’s expression presupposes that there are lessons to be learned from the past. However, these lessons are not always clear. For a start, the mistakes of the past are not always agreed upon, let alone the lessons to be learned. Take the figure of Lenin, for example, on whose political thought I based my PhD. For some, he was the devil incarnate, responsible for setting in motion much of the human carnage of the last century. For others, he represented the purity of the socialist revolution before its ‘betrayal’ by Stalin. This brings us back to Auschwitz. Santayana’s expression is now inscribed above the door of one of the buildings in the camp. Looking up at it last August, I had to look past dozens of young Israeli soldiers in their uniforms. I doubt the lessons that they took with them that day were the same as those felt almost instinctively by so many of us as we walked through the corridors in reverential silence, past horrific and poignant images.

History is the story of human existence. There really is little that is beyond the scope of the historian, and as a discipline it is especially well-suited to cross-disciplinary perspectives. It makes sense for the historian to read up on philosophy, sociology, political science, economics, psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, linguistics, geography, etc. It is the most comprehensive of the humanities disciplines, and there is no reason why it should not be as intellectually stimulating as any other. It is crucially important to study history, to engage with it deeply, precisely because its significance is rarely fully understood and its lessons are not always agreed upon – nor necessarily should they be. History is contestable. Historians are entrusted with interpreting the past as well as recording it, and these interpretations are then contested and debated by others. History is like a mirror that we hold up to ourselves, individually and collectively. It is intended to encourage reflection, especially on the things we don’t like to see. Those who study it gain a great depth of perspective on what it is to be human, and how societies function. Whether or not students of history (or of any other discipline) are able to change the world for the good of others, knowledge and depth of understanding are inherently good things to have: they enrich our lives. It is unfortunate that all too often historians are content with an ‘ivory-tower’ existence, or brief appearances on TV documentaries as means of ‘reaching out’ beyond the confines of academia. We, as historians, have an enormous amount to contribute to contemporary debates, on a wide variety of issues, and I think we should be a lot more assertive in this regard.


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Filed under Historiography, Memory