What do Socialists say about Violence?
On Violence, Strategy and Revolution
Below is second part of a slightly edited transcript for a presentation I gave at the Socialism 2016 conference in Chicago along with a comrade of mine. I intend to add her section in the next few days.
Violence permeates the very soul of society under capitalism, it sweats it from its pores and metes it out in order to continue its existence as a system from day to day. We see this in the daily injustices all around us. It manifests as humiliation and powerlessness when we can’t afford healthcare, when we have to choose between college tuition and rent, when we see people in bad situations but we can’t help them because we’re barely getting by ourselves.
From this flows a sense of alienation people develop when they don’t have control over their own work, when they don’t get to enjoy the products they make and are constantly held hostage by their boss under the threat of unemployment and destitution. These injustices stir up a wide range of emotions from us that go beyond humiliation.
Frustration, anger, demoralization, despair.
But people don’t rage against earthquakes or hurricanes nor against things we know we can’t change. They rage at their conditions because they know these conditions that cause people to rage are preventable. Most times people find ways to deal with their rage. For a small number of them, rage develops into vengeance and it can go beyond just an emotion.
The New York Times wrote that in the United States there is an average of more than one mass shooting a day. The United States, where US politicians boast about the country’s greatness and freedom almost like as an attempt to cover up the fact that there are 47 million people living in poverty. This rage at our social conditions, social fragmentation, and desperation are what is at the root of these mass shootings.
Our collective shock has not yet subsided over what happened in Orlando, Florida, the site of one of the worst mass shootings in recent times — but discussions about what motivated this shooting and mass shootings in general lack any critical investigation into these root causes.
After Omar Mateen walked into an LGBT nightclub and massacred 49 people, the mainstream press & politicians did little to mask their Islamophobic responses. Both presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump connected the shootings to Islam despite evidence that Mateen had no material connection to any group. It also conflicted with accounts from people who knew Mateen that suggests he was carrying out an attack of vengeance or hate against the LGBT community.
Generally, the response from the Liberal political establishment towards mass shootings has been calls for greater gun control — yet these regulations don’t change the fact that people will still rage at their alienation and social conditions in other ways that are likely just as dangerous and harmful to society. Like becoming a cop, where we are 58 times more likely to get killed by than by a terrorist.
But the Liberal establishment is so committed to gun control that a number of Congressional Democrats staged a 24 hour sit-in to force the issue back in June. Ultimately, this “militant direct action” resulted in a Terror Watch List of suspected terrorists, many of which are names, simply names, commonly found in Muslim and Arab communities. So in the name of gun control, Congressional Democrats did something that has a lot in common with policies associated with George W Bush’s presidency.
The Liberal establishment doesn’t go further than Gun control because it allows them to evade accountability for their own Islamophobia and violence on behalf of capitalism. The question put to these Congressional Democrats by the Left still stand — Where was the sit-in by Congressional Democrats for single-payer health care? a $15 minimum wage? against the Iraq war? or for immigration reform? To stop police terror?
The mainstream press echoes the political establishment and rarely discusses the root causes of violence by way of misdirection. This comes in two different ways — towards the Left, when it comes to the fights at Trump campaign rallies, the Liberal mainstream press condemns protest actions at Trump rallies and have gone so far as to say that anti-trump protesters are impinging on Trump’s right to free speech. They use the high moral ground to argue that people must go through the established channels of expression to respond to Trump. In contrast, rarely does the Liberal mainstream press condemn President Obama for his drone strikes that kill civilians in the Middle East, for his billion dollar cuts to food stamps or his unprecedented number of deportations that destroy families.
The Right-Wing press, on the other hand, has used Orlando to whip up fear against the Muslim community and for ramping up the war on terror. On this latter point, Hillary Clinton shares this in common with the Right wing.
At other times, the Right Wing Press won’t hesitate to blame the Left for indirectly or directly, creating an atmosphere which caused the act of terror even when the one who committed the act has zero affiliations with Left-wing organizations or social movements.
One example that illustrates this was with the killing of two NYPD cops in December 2014. Although the person who killed the two cops had absolutely no connection to the Black Lives Matter movement, various news segments and multiple 24 hour news cycles on this incident gave political pundits the platform to accuse the new movement for creating an anti-police atmosphere.
Later on police departments would broadcast these arguments in press conferences after police were killed or hurt to vilify the movement, justify its militarization and continue their behavior towards black and brown communities.
While the Guardian kept an ongoing record of the number of people killed by cops in the USA, Fox News created a new recurring topic, called the War on Cops, where they tracked and reported the number of incidents where cops were hurt or died while on patrol.
Leon Trotsky, a revolutionary socialist from Russia, wrote many articles on the roots of these acts of terror by individuals which I’ll get back to, but one thing that struck me while reading his polemics is that he would start by demonstrating his solidarity with the individuals who carried out this act of terror. And that was because in his time, the acts of terror that Trotsky was referring to often were against individuals associated with actions that oppressed, killed, maimed or humiliated working people. He did this because he knew that our social conditions under capitalism are what motivate these acts.
But in our time and in the United States, almost all of the recent political acts of terror have had a right wing bent and are the product of the hate that Democrats and Republicans have whipped up against women and people of color — especially against immigrants, Muslims and LGBTQ people in an effort to further their own political careers.
Indeed, the mainstream press seems to now only use the label “terrorist” when an act of individual violence is committed by someone who identifies with Islam. Dylan Roof, the avowed white supremacist who walked into a Black Church in Charleston and killed nine black parishioners, was never identified by the mainstream media as terrorist and like other cases where white people commit acts of terror, they are labeled as men with mental health problems.
But if we were to look at basic dictionary.com definition of terror it would say that terror is “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes”. If we are to all agree with this definition then it would follow that the policy of the ruling class against the working class is one of permanent terrorism.
To repeat, the basis of violence in society has its roots in the repressive, unjust, and alienating prevailing order of affairs but to end this order, individual acts of violence by vengeful lone wolves or by small conspiratorial terrorist groups, are not only ineffective, they can also be damaging to social movements and communities who are fighting oppression and exploitation through mass collective action.
Not only should we not equate the systematic violence of the oppressor with the individual acts of violence by the oppressed, as socialists, we do not believe that individual acts of violence can rid us of the collective oppression we endure as a class. We must argue against it as a tactic that has been called for from sections of the Left in the past.
A classical example of a left wing organization committed to acts of terror was The Weather Underground, one of the organizations that came out of Students for a Democratic Society, a mass student organization of thousands that dissolved in 1969 after years of intense political infighting. To provide a bit more context of the Weather Underground, it was an organization that identified with Marxism of the Maoist variety and carried out acts of political terror against the US government. It was a product of the radicalization process in US society that unfolded during the social movements of the 60’s and 70’s. By the time of the Weather Underground’s birth, many of the organizers of these social movement were quickly becoming impatient at the slow pace of progress and little fundamental change their movements had brought about. The Weather Underground is one of the prime examples of this impatience and radicalization.
When the Weather Underground declared an armed struggle against the United States Government in 1970, bombing banks, government agencies and police stations, it did so on the idea of recruiting new members on the slogan to “bring the [Vietnam] war home” against the US government.
After the Weather Underground went clandestine to avoid the FBI, their membership dropped dramatically. Instead of building a mass organization, the Weather Underground lost membership because of its conspiratorial strategy. Their actions did little beyond providing the ruling class with justification for greater police state repression and engendered negative sentiments against social movements among the very masses it was trying to provoke.
This strategy of terror, sometimes justified under the slogan the “Propaganda of the Deed”, by segments of the radical Left, has a long history. But throughout its history, it was usually the result of isolated Leftists that at best were impatient at the slow pace of struggle and at worst, had become dismissive of the power of mass action and the role of the masses in bringing about social change.
In the first explanation, the idea is that theses acts of violence are meant to excite or shock the masses into struggle. As if the many instances of horror and brutality at the capitalist system that people intimately feel are not already shocking or exciting people enough, here are a handful of isolated and self-sacrificing individuals who believe that they are what the working class has been waiting for all along to kick off the revolution.
In the second explanation, it is an elitist and patronizing political position that says that the masses aren’t necessary for fundamental social change.
By 1974, after realizing that turning towards an underground conspiratorial strategy had left them weaker than before, the Weather Underground called for a strategy that combined clandestine acts of terror with mass above-ground organizations — combining acts of political terror with mass agitation and propaganda.
The problem with this combined strategy is that the very nature of terrorist activity requires small numbers of individuals and demands incredible amount of resources and planning into one all important action. For the Weather Underground, the role of the mass organizations would be to build public support for the acts of terror — not to engage new people in struggle, train new socialists or organize the working class.
The conspiratorial nature of the work, the fact that this type of organizing is hidden from the discussion and debates that masses of people can take part in make the proponents of this tactic unaccountable to the mass organizations that are above-ground. In the end, the substitution of acts of terror for mass mobilization hurts the Left as the political establishment whips up fear and support for greater surveillance — ultimately inviting police agents and informants into its ranks.
Trotsky, in his polemic against Russian revolutionaries who used acts of terror to advance the cause of liberation, wrote -
“a strike, even of modest size, has social consequences..[it] strengthens the worker’s self-confidence and grew the trade union.”
On the other hand -
“The murder of a factory owner produces effects of a police nature only, or a change of proprietors devoid of social significance. Whether a terrorist attempt, even a ‘successful’ one, throws the ruling class into confusion depends on the concrete political circumstances. In any case the confusion can only be short lived; the capitalist state does not base itself on government ministers and cannot be eliminated with them. The class it serves will always find new people; the mechanism remains intact and continues to function. But the disarray introduced into the ranks of the working masses themselves by a terrorist attempt is much deeper.”
The assassination of a hated politician, although potentially received with some popular support from the masses, excludes the masses from agitation and political education. The very act itself, carried out by a pistol or bomb, is done by only a handful of people. These acts belittle the masses in their own mind and diminishes the idea of their collective power to change society. It delays and damages the development of self activity and self confidence in mass action by working people and engenders in people the idea of a great hero, liberator and avenger of the people who will one day come and save them.
Eugene Debs, one of the most famous socialist of the United States, known for his tireless campaign elections, principled action and stirring speeches for the Socialist Party would remind socialists of the shortcomings of this strategy when he said —
“I would not be a Moses to lead you into the Promised Land, because if I could lead you into it, someone else could lead you out of it.”
Although I don’t think there’s a one to one relationship between acts of terror by the Left and leftists who try to carry out the most sensational acts of disruption to garner the greatest amount of media attention during periods of low struggle, I think the dynamics are similar enough in the effect it has on collective consciousness and the importance of mass action. Both are sometimes meant to stop the decomposition of movements but fail to understand the subjective reasons why the masses and its struggle may be in a period of retreat or stagnation.
These individual acts of terror are not sufficient to change the collective violence that we experience under a capitalist society. The history of the socialist movement has argued against these acts of terror not as a tactic during the course of a revolutionary upheaval by the working class but against the thinking that these acts of terror are a substitute for the mobilization of the masses in collective action and collective struggle.
The reason for this is because the socialist movement drew on the argument of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels who, along with the First International, an international organization made up of unionists, socialists and revolutionaries from different countries, held up the battle cry: “The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself.”
Members of the First International echoed a development in the theory of socialism that broke with the thinking of the “Utopian Socialists” like Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. In their time, these Utopian Socialists rightfully recoiled in horror against the social violence capitalism had created. But they had not yet seen the power of the working class in struggle. They didn’t understand the role the working class played in capitalist production or the capacity of working people to shut it down if they acted collectively.
Because of this, they dismissed the role of the working class in being the revolutionary vehicle to not only end capitalism but bring about the construction of a new society built on democratic planning for the collective interest of humanity.
Utopian Socialists had one thing right which is that they believed that humans were a product of their environment and that if you could change the material conditions and social environment to reflect a Utopian society, so then would the outlook and practice of humans raised in this Utopia change as well.
So Utopian Socialists dedicated decades to envisioning the perfect society and building it in colonies isolated from the ever expanding capitalist markets. Like many who attempt to prefigure now what a society free of exploitation and oppression would like, the Utopian Socialists ultimately ran up against the intrusion of capitalism into every corner of the world. None of their efforts proved successful in stopping capitalism.
Where the Utopian Socialists developed the idea that humans are a product of their environment, Marx and Engels, on the other hand, developed this further and found the key to revolutionary change. They argued that in the process of humans changing their environment, they would also change themselves.
In their famous polemic against the Utopian Socialists, the German Ideology, Marx and Engels argued that “Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”
We’ve seen this ourselves as just the first few months into the large mobilizations of the BlackLivesMatter movement, it had forced a conversation about the living conditions of black and brown people, about police terror, mass incarceration, the war on drugs and many more much needed conversations in the United States. This was done through its coordination of mass mobilizations and civil disobedience in a way that no single act of civil disobedience or act of terror ever could.
Before I end, I want to return to the question, “Is revolution necessarily a violent process”?
No, it doesn’t have to be because a socialist revolution, where the overwhelming masses take rightful control of their society is a revolution that the masses would support based on their collective interests as a class and because it would provide a real alternative to the violence of everyday society and to the looming catastrophes that lay ahead of us.
But it would be naive for us to believe that those whose lavish lifestyles, power and influence depends on a policy of repression and class terror would just let us take back for ourselves what Capitalist believe, based on the legal logic and social relations of capitalist society, is rightfully theirs. Look at the resources allocated for domestic social control and repressive institutions such as the police and the trillions of dollar handed over to the Pentagon to maintain the United States at the top of the international capitalist system. This is done everyday. Imagine what the capitalists might do if posed with the threat of losing it to the class that opposes their very existence as a class?
At a time when society is as volatile and polarized as it is now, with the threat of extinction and ever worsening social conditions hanging over our heads there really is only one strategy that can get us out of this situation. Armed with the power of the mass strike and motivated by a socialist vision of society, the only force capable of ending the systematic violence that we witness around us is the organized working class.
Without the masses themselves, how else are we going to take on the monumental task of fundamentally restructuring society so that it serves the interests of humanity as a whole?
Only with the involvement of the masses of people in mass democratic organizations can we ever get to a state of affairs that goes beyond what George Orwell illustrated to us when he arrived at Barcelona, a city that had come under the control of working people during the fight against the Fascists:
“Nobody said ‘Señor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ and ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos dias’. Tipping was forbidden by law; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”
If socialists draw on the lessons of past revolutionary thinkers, arm themselves with the theory and strategy of revolutionary socialism, organize themselves along with their communities into a coordinated struggle against capitalism, humanity may finally see a new society, absent of violence, and dedicated to the full development of human potential and expression. This new society, after all, would be a state of affairs worth fighting for.