Hannah Arendt: Reflections on Violence (1969)

NB: This theoretical essay, a contribution to a special supplement of the New York Review of Books, was written by a philosopher whose greatest contribution to politics was her capacity to challenge our favourite presumptions. It came in the aftermath of one of the most turbulent years in post-1945 history. Above all else, Hannah Arendt asks us to think.  She considers the claim for participatory democracy “the one positive political slogan the new movement has put forth, which has echoed around the globe and which constitutes the most significant common denominator of the rebellions in the East and the West.” For Arendt, this slogan “derives from the best in the revolutionary tradition - the council system, the always defeated but only authentic outgrowth of all revolutions since the eighteenth century..” The careful distinctions she makes between terms and concepts current in public life lead into a provocative engagement with the ideas of Hegel, Marx, Sorel, Sartre, de Jouvenel and Fanon, among others.  DS 

(Clicking the title of the essay below, or any of the footnotes will lead into the online text)

"Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done. It is this state of affairs which is among the most potent causes for the current world-wide rebellious unrest...

"it is one of the most obvious distinctions between power and violence that power always stands in need of numbers, whereas violence relying on instruments up to a point can manage without them. A legally unrestricted majority rule, that is, a democracy without a constitution, can be very formidable indeed in the suppression of the rights of minorities and very effective in the suffocation of dissent without any use of violence. Undivided and unchecked power can bring about a “consensus” that is hardly less coercive than suppression by means of violence. But that does not mean that violence and power are the same...

"It must be admitted that it is particularly tempting to think of power as a matter of command and obedience, and hence to equate power with violence, when discussing what is only one of power’s special provinces, namely, the power of government.

"Power is indeed of the essence of all government, but violence is not. Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the end it pursues. And what needs justification through something else cannot be the essence of anything. The end of war is peace; but to the question, And what is the end of peace?, there is no answer. Peace is an absolute, even though in recorded history the periods of warfare have nearly always outlasted the periods of peace. Power is in the same category; it is, as the saying goes, “an end in itself.” (of course.. governments pursue policies and employ their power to achieve prescribed goals. But the power structure itself precedes and outlasts all aims, so that power, far from being the means to an end, is actually the very condition that enables a group of people to think and act according to means and ends.) And since government is essentially organized and institutionalized power, the current question, What is the end of government?, does not make much sense either. The answer will be either question-begging—to enable men to live together—or dangerously utopian: to promote happiness or to realize a classless society or some other nonpolitical ideal, which if tried out in earnest can only end in the worst kind of government, that is, tyranny.

"the danger of the practice of violence, even if it moves consciously within a non-extremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will not merely be defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world...

A Special Supplement: Reflections on Violence
These reflections were provoked by the events and debates of the last few years, as seen against the background of the twentieth century. Indeed this century has become, as Lenin predicted, a century of wars and revolutions, hence a century of that violence which is currently believed to be their common denominator. There is, however, another factor in the present situation which, though predicted by nobody, is of at least equal importance. The technical development of implements of violence has now reached the point where no political goal could conceivably correspond to their destructive potential or justify their actual use in armed conflict. Hence, warfare—since times immemorial the final merciless arbiter in international disputes—has lost much of its effectiveness and nearly all of its glamor. “The apocalyptic” chess game between the superpowers, that is, between those that move on the highest plane of our civilization, is being played according to the rule: “if either ‘wins’ it is the end of both.”1 Moreover the game bears no resemblance to whatever war games preceded it. Its “rational” goal is mutual deterrence, not victory.

Since violence—as distinct from power, force, or strength—always needsimplements (as Engels pointed out long ago),2 the revolution in technology, a revolution in tool-making, was especially marked in warfare. The very substance of violent action is ruled by the question of means and ends, whose chief characteristic, if applied to human affairs, has always been that the end is in danger of being overwhelmed by the means, which it both justifies and needs. Since the end of human action, in contrast with the products of fabrication, can never be reliably predicted, the means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals. Moreover, all violence harbors within itself an element of arbitrariness; nowhere does Fortuna, good or ill luck, play a more important role in human affairs than on the battlefield; and this intrusion of the “Random Event” cannot be eliminated by game theories but only by the certainty of mutual destruction. It seems symbolic of this all-pervading unpredictability that those engaged in the perfection of the means of destruction have finally brought about a level of technical development where their aim, namely warfare, is on the point of disappearing altogether.3
No one concerned with history and politics can remain unaware of the enormous role violence has always played in human affairs; and it is at first glance rather surprising that violence has so seldom been singled out for special consideration. This shows to what extent violence and its arbitrary nature were taken for granted and therefore neglected; no one questions or examines what is obvious to all. Whoever looked for some kind of sense in the records of the past was almost bound to look upon violence as a marginal phenomenon. When Clausewitz calls war “the continuation of politics with other means,” or Engels defines violence as the accelerator of economic development,5the emphasis is on political or economic continuity, on continuing a process which is determined by what preceded violent action. Hence, students of international relations have held until very recently that “it was a maxim that a military resolution in discord with the deeper cultural sources of national power could not be stable,” or that, in Engels’s words, “wherever the power structure of a country contradicts its economic development” political power with its means of violence will suffer defeat.6
Today all these old verities about the relation of war and politics or about violence and power no longer apply. We know that “a few weapons could wipe out all other sources of national power in a few moments,” 7 that biological weapons are devised which would enable “small groups of individuals…to upset the strategic balance” and be cheap enough to be produced by “nations unable to develop nuclear striking forces,”8 that “within a very few years” robot soldiers will have made “human soldiers completely obsolete,”9 and that, finally, in conventional warfare the poor countries are much less vulnerable than the great powers precisely because they are “underdeveloped” and because technical superiority can “be much more of a liability than an asset” in guerrilla wars.10
What all these very uncomfortable novelties add up to is a reversal in the relationship between power and violence, foreshadowing another reversal in the future relationship between small and great powers. The amount of violence at the disposal of a given country may no longer be a reliable indication of that country’s strength or a reliable guarantee against destruction by a substantially smaller and weaker power. This again bears an ominous similarity to one of the oldest insights of political science, namely that power cannot be measured by wealth, that an abundance of wealth may erode power, that riches are particularly dangerous for the power and well-being of republics.
The more doubtful the outcome of violence in international relations, the more it has gained in reputation and appeal in domestic affairs, specifically in the matter of revolution. The strong Marxist flavor in the rhetoric of the New Left coincides with the steady growth of the entirely non-Marxian conviction, proclaimed by Mao Tsetung, “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” To be sure, Marx was aware of the role of violence in history, but this role was to him secondary; not violence but the contradictions inherent in the old society brought about its end. The emergence of a new society was preceded, but not caused, by violent outbreaks, which he likened to the labor pangs that precede, but of course do not cause, the event of organic birth.
In the same vein, Marx regarded the state as an instrument of violence at the command of the ruling class; but the actual power of the ruling class did not consist of nor rely on violence. It was defined by the role the ruling class played in society, or more exactly, by its role in the process of production. It has often been noticed, and sometimes deplored, that the revolutionary Left, under the influence of Marx’s teachings, ruled out the use of violent means; the “dictatorship of the proletariat”—openly repressive in Marx’s writings—came after the revolution and was meant, like the Roman dictatorship, as a strictly limited period. Political assassination, with the exception of a few acts of individual terror perpetuated by small groups of anarchists, was mostly the prerogative of the Right, while organized armed uprisings remained the specialty of the military.
On the level of theory, there were a few exceptions. Georges Sorel, who at the beginning of the century tried a combination of Marxism with Bergson’s philosophy of life—which on a much lower level of sophistication shows an odd similarity with Sartre’s current amalgamation of existentialism and Marxism—thought of class struggle in military terms; but he ended by proposing nothing more violent than the famous myth of the general strike, a form of action which we today would rather think of as belonging to the arsenal of nonviolent politics.
Fifty years ago, even this modest proposal earned him the reputation of being a fascist, his enthusiastic approval of Lenin and the Russian Revolution notwithstanding. Sartre, who in his Preface to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth goes much further in his glorification of violence than Sorel in his famous Reflections on Violence - further than Fanon himself whose argument he wishes to bring to its conclusion - still mentions “Sorel’s fascist utterances.” This shows to what extent Sartre is unaware of his basic disagreement with Marx on the question of violence, especially when he states that “irrepressible violence…is man recreating himself,” that it is “mad fury” through which “the wretched of the earth” can “become men.”
These notions are all the more remarkable since the idea of man creating himself is in the tradition of Hegelian and Marxian thinking; it is the very basis of all leftist humanism. But according to Hegel, man “produces” himself through thought,11whereas for Marx, who turned Hegel’s “idealism” upside down, it was labor, the human form of metabolism with nature, that fulfilled this function. One may argue that all notions of man-creating-himself have in common a rebellion against the human condition itself - nothing is more obvious than that man, be it as a member of the species or as an individual, does not owe his existence to himself—and that therefore what Sartre, Marx, and Hegel have in common is more relevant than the specific activities through which this non-fact should have come about. Still, it is hardly deniable that a gulf separates the essentially peaceful activities of thinking or laboring and deeds of violence. “To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone…there remains a dead man and a free man,” writes Sartre in his Preface. This is a sentence Marx could never have written.
I quote Sartre in order to show that this new shift toward violence in the thinking of revolutionaries can remain unnoticed even by one of their most representative and articulate spokesmen.12 If one turns the “idealistic” concept of thought upside down one might arrive at the “materialistic” concept of labor; one will never arrive at the notion of violence. No doubt, this development has a logic of its own, but it is logic that springs from experience and not from a development of ideas; and this experience was utterly unknown to any generation before....
To be sure, the recent emphasis on violence is still mostly a matter of theory and rhetoric, but it is precisely this rhetoric, shot through with all kinds of Marxist leftovers, that is so baffling. Who could possibly call an ideology Marxist that has put its faith, to quote Fanon, in “the classless idlers,” believes that “in the lumpen-proletariat the rebellion will find its urban spearhead,” and trusts that the “gangsters light the way for the people”?15 Sartre in his great felicity with words has given expression to the new faith. “Violence,” he now believes, on the strength of Fanon’s book, “like Achilles’ lance, can heal the wounds that it has inflicted.” If this were true, revenge would be the cure-all for most of our ills. This myth is more abstract, further removed from reality than Sorel’s myth of a general strike ever was. It is on a par with Fanon’s worst rhetorical excesses, such as, “Hunger with dignity is preferable to bread eaten in slavery.” No history and no theory are needed to refute this statement; the most superficial observer of the processes in the human body knows its untruth. But had he said that bread eaten with dignity is preferable to cake eaten in slavery, the rhetorical point would have been lost.

If one reads these irresponsible and grandiose statements of these intellectuals - and those I quoted are fairly representative, except that Fanon still manages to stay closer to reality than most of them - and if one looks at them in the perspective of what we know about the history of rebellions and revolutions, it is tempting to deny their significance, to ascribe them to a passing mood, or to the ignorance and nobility of sentiment of those who are exposed to unprecedented events without any means to handle them mentally, and who therefore have revived thoughts and emotions which Marx had hoped to have buried forever. For it is certainly nothing new that those who are being violated dream of violence, that those who are oppressed “dream at least once a day of setting” themselves up in the oppressor’s place, that those who are poor dream of the possessions of the rich, that the persecuted dream of exchanging “the role of the quarry for that of the hunter,” and the last of the kingdom where “the last shall be first, and the first last.”16
The great rarity of slave-rebellions and of uprisings among the disinherited and downtrodden is notorious; on the rare occasions when they occurred it was precisely “mad fury” that turned dreams into nightmares for everybody, and in no case, so far as I know, was the force of mere “volcanic” outbursts, as Sartre states, “equal to that of the pressure put on” the oppressed. To believe that we deal with such outbursts bursts in the National Liberation Movements, and nothing more, is to prophesy their doom—quite apart from the fact that the unlikely victory would not result in the change of the world (or the system) but only of its personnel. To think, finally, that there is such a thing as the “Unity of the Third World” to which one could address the new slogan in the era of decolonization, “Natives of all underdeveloped countries unite!” (Sartre) is to repeat Marx’s worst illusions on a greatly enlarged scale and with considerably less justification...
There still remains the question why so many of these new preachers of violence have remained unaware of their decisive disagreement with the teachings of Karl Marx, or, to put it another way, why they cling with such stubborn tenacity to concepts which are not only refuted by actual events but are clearly inconsistent with their own politics. For although the one positive political slogan the new movement has put forth, the claim for “participatory democracy,” which has echoed around the globe and which constitutes the most significant common denominator of the rebellions in the East and the West, derives from the best in the revolutionary tradition - the council system, the always defeated but only authentic outgrowth of all revolutions since the eighteenth century - it cannot be found in nor does it agree, either in word or in substance, with the teachings of Marx and Lenin, both of whom aimed at a society in which the need for public action and participation in public affairs would have “withered away,” along with the state itself.
(It is true that a similar inconsistency could be charged to Marx and Lenin themselves. Didn’t Marx support and glorify the Paris Commune of 1871, and didn’t Lenin issue the famous slogan of the Russian Revolution, “All power to the soviets“? But Marx thought of the Commune not as a new form of government but as a necessarily transitory organ of revolutionary action, “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labor,” a form which, according to Engels, was identical with “the dictatorship of the Proletariat.” The case of Lenin is more complicated. Still, it was Lenin who emasculated the soviets and finally gave all power to the Party.)
Because of its curious timidity in theoretical matters, which contrasts oddly with its bold courage in practice, the slogan of the New Left has remained in a declamatory stage, to be invoked like a charm against both Western representative democracy, which is about to lose even its merely representative function to the huge party machines that “represent” not the party membership but its functionaries, and the Eastern one-party bureaucracies, which rule out participation on principle. I am not sure what the explanation of these inconsistencies will eventually turn out to be; but I suspect that the deeper reason for this loyalty to a typical nineteenth-century doctrine has something to do with the concept of Progress, with the unwillingness to part with this notion that has always united Liberalism, Socialism, and Communism, but has nowhere reached the level of plausibility and sophistication we find in the writings of Karl Marx. (For inconsistency has always been the Achilles’ heel of liberal thought; it combined an unswerving loyalty to Progress with a no less strict refusal to look upon History in Marxian and Hegelian terms, which alone could justify this belief.)
The notion that there is such a thing as Progress for mankind as a whole, that it is the law which rules all processes in the human species, was unknown prior to the eighteenth century and became an almost universally accepted dogma in the nineteenth. The same idea both informed Darwin’s biological discoveries, whereby mankind owed its very existence to an irrepressible forward movement of Nature, and gave rise to the new philosophies of History, which, since Hegel, have understood progress expressly in terms of organic development. Marx’s idea, borrowed from Hegel, that every old society harbors the seeds of its successors as every living organism harbors the seeds of its offspring is indeed not only the most ingenious but the only possible conceptual guarantee for the sempiternal continuity of Progress in History.
To be sure, a guarantee which in the final analysis rests on not much more than a metaphor is not the most solid basis to erect a doctrine upon, but this, unhappily, Marxism shares with a great many other doctrines in philosophy. Its great advantage becomes clear as soon as one compares it with other concepts of History—such as the rise and fall of empires, the eternal recurrence of the same, the haphazard sequence of essentially unconnected events—all of which can just as well be documented and justified, but none of which will guarantee a continuum of linear time and hence a continuous progress in history. And the only competitor in the field, the ancient notion of a Golden Age at the beginning, from which everything else is derived, implies the rather unpleasant certainty of continuous decline..
It is against the background of these experiences that I propose to raise the question of violence in the political realm. This is not easy; for Sorel’s remark sixty years ago, that “The problems of violence still remain very obscure,”21 is as true today as it was then. I mentioned the general reluctance to deal with violence as a separate phenomenon in its own right, and I must now qualify this statement. If we turn to the literature on the phenomenon of power, we soon find out that there exists an agreement among political theorists from Left to Right that violence is nothing more than the most flagrant manifestation of power. “All politics is a struggle for power; the ultimate kind of power is violence,” said C. Wright Mills, echoing, as it were, Max Weber’s definition of the state as the “rule of men over men, based on the means of legitimate, i.e. allegedly legitimate, violence.”22
The agreement is very strange; for to equate political power with “the organization of violence” makes sense only if one follows Marx’s estimate of the state as an instrument of suppression in the hands of the ruling class. Let us therefore turn to authors who do not believe that the body politic, its laws and institutions, are merely coercive superstructures, secondary manifestations of some underlying forces. Let us turn, for instance, to Bertrand de Jouvenel, whose book, Power, is perhaps the most prestigious and, anyway, the most interesting recent treatise on the subject. “To him,” he writes, “who contemplates the unfolding of the ages war presents itself as an activity of States which pertains to their essence.”23 But would the end of warfare, we are likely to ask, mean the end of States? Would the disappearance of violence in the relationships between States spell the end of power?
The answer, it seems, would depend on what we understand by power. De Jouvenel defines power as an instrument of rule, while rule, we are told, owes its existence to “the instinct of domination.”24 As he writes, “To command and to be obeyed: without that, there is no Power—with it no other attribute is needed for it to be …. The thing without which it cannot be: that essence is command.” If the essence of power is the effectiveness of command, then there is no greater power than that which grows out of the barrel of a gun. Bertrand de Jouvenel and Mao Tse-tung thus seem to agree on so basic a point in political philosophy as the nature of power... Read the full essay: 

Popular posts from this blog

Third degree torture used on Maruti workers: Rights body

Haruki Murakami: On seeing the 100% perfect girl one beautiful April morning

The Almond Trees by Albert Camus (1940)

Satyagraha - An answer to modern nihilism

Rudyard Kipling: critical essay by George Orwell (1942)

Three Versions of Judas: Jorge Luis Borges

Goodbye Sadiq al-Azm, lone Syrian Marxist against the Assad regime