I am starting my own personal blog by reposting some of my writing on disparate sites over the last few years that I feel are still relevant to my thinking today. This is an adaptation of a note that I wrote in response to the comments of a fellow leftist in Nova Scotia in late 2009 in response to a debate over the efficacy of political/revolutionary violence.
This was originally written in response to a point about the overthrow of the Batista regime, which is often put forward as the violence of the Castro government against its own people, quite incorrectly,is seen as relatively benign ( a statement as to just how awful the other Communist regimes were). So let us begin by looking at this a little more closely.
Those who justify violence almost always do so on the seemingly moral basis that were it not for the use of violence an immoral regime of one type or another (the Czar, Batista, Saddam Hussein, etc...) would not have been overthrown and this, in-and-of itself, is the sole moral basis that is required for its use.
I think that there are several fundamental problems with this.
The first lies in the similarity between these ideas and Richard Taylor's theories on Fatalism in that those who defend force rely on its future outcome to retroactively provide the pillars of support for its necessity. The success of the overthrow is, by definition, the proof of the justice of their argument.
But their error is also akin to Taylor's in that outcome does NOT indicate necessity. Again using Batista as an example, while it is an undeniable fact that his overthrow was accomplished by the methods of Che and Castro, this in no way means that these were the only methods by which he could have been ousted and, as I will return to later, this by no means indicates that the consequences of these methods, as opposed to other methods that might have been used, resulted in a better outcome than they would have. Further, even if one accepts that the nature of the violence, in this specific context, makes the violence of a more (although, and this is very important, not strictly) defensive as opposed to aggressive nature, a fact that I think most would concede, does this then justify post-revolutionary violence and is this post-revolutionary violence inextricably linked to the basically immoral taking of life that has been deemed to have been acceptable in the pre-revolutionary context in that it has created a mindset in which the exercise of violence is used in order to attain political goals?
One might, as a final addition to the first point, note that similar regimes, in the region and around the world, have been defeated using different methods that now result in better outcomes for their citizens, in terms of both democratic freedoms and standards of living, than exist in Cuba. One might further note that, for as many cases of the success of these methods, such as in Cuba, there are many more cases of its failure. Is it also justified when it completely fails in its intended result, thereby not only killing people, but accomplishing little or even, as often happens, creating a backlash in which objective conditions worsen?
This blends into the second point which is that the outcome of the outcome of the violence needs to be taken into consideration when looking at its objective morality. In essence, did the violence lead not only to the ouster of the old regime, but did it then result in a demonstrably better outcome not only than that which would have resulted had the old regime remained in power, but also than that which might otherwise have been constructed? A crucial aspect of this is the question of whether the violence, both in the sense of killing and in the sense of the very real violence embodied in the denial of basic freedom to millions of people, ended or continued in the wake of the exercise of pre-revolutionary violence.
In the case of the exercise of violence by the Bolsheviks, their regime had little moral basis at its founding (not only not having actually overthrown the Czars, but also having immediately crushed the truly democratic victory of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in elections held in the wake of their November putsch) and it then descended into pure barbarity under Stalin when violence became one of the regime's basic ideological principles and when the victims of this disgraceful moment in history were almost all either entirely innocent or were, in fact, actually supporters of the revolution.
While the case of Cuba is less extreme, this is only in matter of degree, in much the same way that one can speak of relatively humane kings and their nastier counterparts. The lack of democratic rights, the disgusting inability of people to freely leave their country, the use of block committees to defend the revolution which become, in practice, methods of prying into the private and personal affairs of citizens, the banning of a wide array of writers, from Orwell to Trotsky, the use of the death penalty, which is always wrong, but especially in the context of a judicial system which will allow for conviction, appeal and the execution itself in as short a time as a week (as happened, in fact, not all that long ago), the fact that Cuba now ranks as one of the worst human rights offenders in the hemisphere, the fact that many of its accomplishments have now deteriorated or decayed due to ineptitude and lack of flexibility or civilian oversight, etc., etc., all lead one to question if, in the end, the violence, and the mass shooting in the period right after the revolution's victory (which were shootings of unarmed and defenceless people), now seem to be quite as clearly beneficent as they once did.
(One might also note that if our standard is to be solely that violence which results in the ouster of a tyrant and that makes the lives of some or all of those who that tyrant oppressed on some level better, is justified, then Michael Ignatieff's, Christopher Hitchens' or George Bush's justification of the invasion of Iraq on the basis of helping the Kurds is, in fact, completely correct. That it led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and to the rise of Islamic extremism in the rest of the country after the fact does not change the reality that, if you accept the idea of redemptive violence, then George Bush could be seen as a hero in the Kurdish or even the broader context. One cannot logically deny to one's enemies that which one morally excuses in one's self)
I would say that, in the end, the intent of those who exercise the violence, the reasons they do so and the goals they seek to achieve, the society they envision and the methods they are willing to use in its accomplishment, are all every bit as morally significant as the immediate reasoning that has led them to take up arms or to use force. This, again, leads one to the question of just what type of movement, and what type of people, are inclined to the use of political violence and whether or not that impacts on the way they govern when they do succeed.
The reality is that the supporters of violent methods always use the first outcome, the victory over tyranny, or the replacement of one oppressive economic system with something new, to endlessly justify all of the actions that then flow from that revolutionary moment. This initial violence, as well as the violent retributions of those once in power, are used as a support for the bloodbaths that follow.
Even now one stumbles on the deluded rantings of apologists for mass murder all of whose drivel is predicated on the completely false appeal to the notion that "well, after all, they were better than the old regime" or the inanity that killing is acceptable in one context because things were bad in a different context. Often the refrain goes something like "Yes, it is true that Stalin shot a million fellow Communists, after long torture sessions, on trumped up falsehoods presented at grotesque show trials in the few cases where the pretext of a trial was bothered with at all...but don't you realize that at the same time there were ghettos in New York City and blacks were killed and intimidated in the southern US". Statements such as these are paraded about as if the possibility that neither had to occur is unfathomable. It is an argument that seeks to justify that which cannot be justified by claiming an entirely false counterpoint in other completely unjustifiable acts or conditions.
These purveyors of such rot frequently have to resort to holding completely contradictory lines of reasoning on the same subject. They accept or excuse the shooting of unarmed people in one context but not another. They oppose the death penalty everywhere except when applied to completely innocent people in the countries, past-or-present, that they support ideologically. They will, quite correctly, state that the nature of today's capitalism is the underlying cause of famine or preventable death due to hunger, poor drinking water, poverty, etc., and hoist these examples as proof, again correctly, that the system is unjust, while claiming, often in the same breath and entirely incorrectly, that horrific occurrences, such as the aforementioned mass executions, other famines, or completely vile acts of cowardice such as the Tienanmen Square Massacre are NOT proof of the injustice that lies at the root the systems that they defend.
What this is leading to, and will be expanded upon later writings, is that it is the acceptance of violence, the willingness to use it as a political tool, that dooms these movements and revolutions to failure from the start. It is impossible to build a just, socialist, egalitarian society on an edifice of the dead. It is impossible for the very reason that only some will be allowed to determine when it is acceptable to use violence, and that, once the assumption of the necessity of violence has become ingrained in the revolutionary mindset, those who the party or movement endow with this privilege, with this power over life itself, will be morally corrupted from the start and will represent a new class of oppressors every bit as real as those who came before.
It is impossible because the moral compromise is too great.
The defenders of this grand injustice will always point, for example, to the union organizer who braved the threats of the bosses and the violence of their lackeys to unionize the poor miners of Sudbury. But if he or she also supported the shooting of Bukharin in a prison basement in the back of the neck, or the displacement of entire peoples due to the actions of a few, or the consignment of the children of "enemies-of-the-people" to orphanages until they came of age, whence they were sent themselves to the camps, just how moral were they? Is a person who turned the blind eye to Stalin's evil because the USSR had no private ownership of the means-of-production really any different from the German who supported Hitler because he, for a time, made Germany stable, prosperous and efficient?
One is tainted by the actions one supports. Any positive outcome of them is rendered putrid by the scent of blood.
I feel that we must move beyond those who feel that society and human beings can be remade overnight through some forceful revolutionary push by some elite cadre of vanguardists. I feel we must move beyond their obsession with power and its exercise, an exercise that is impossible without a high level of compulsion. The time for this elitist ideal of bourgeois dropouts and pseudo-intellectuals has come and gone.
And so, I think, has the time for defending the use of violence.
In the final analysis, and I again will expand upon this later, I feel we must re-examine our objectives as a transformative social movement. We must accept that complex societies and peoples, and they are all complex, will have to undergo a difficult and challenging process if we wish to attain a truly lasting socialist transformation.
Part of this transformation, if it is ever to occur, must flow from deep feelings of human fellowship. From a genuine and unforced desire to do what is right and to help our neighbours and fellow citizens. From a sense of understanding for human failing and a realization that we, as leftists may not always be correct and must accept the views of others and accept defeats as a way to keep us in balance and in check. Those who feel they have all the answers have been proven by history to be delusional. We must cease to act as if we have that right.
And we must turn away from violence not simply because it does not work but because, in every fundamental respect, it makes us less different from those we oppose. It compromises us. It violates our vision.
As hard as it may be, as long as the struggle will be, we will be made better and stronger if we chose to eschew political violence as a means to political end both here and elsewhere.