In advocating the goal of removing the rich from power to create an egalitarian society are we advocating violence? This is a question we are frequently asked, especially by people who hold to Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence.
Before proceeding to give an answer to this important question, it is helpful to keep in mind that among those of us who want to remove the rich from power to create an egalitarian society--we're talking about hundreds of millions of Americans and many more world wide--there are disagreements about this question of violence. Therefore we should promote a serious and ongoing discussion among all of us to carefully identify the specific distinct concerns people have and thereby try to resolve our differences on the basis of our shared fundamental values of equality and mutual aid.
In this spirit, I (John Spritzler, the editor of this web site) am now going to write in the first person, and express merely my personal views here. I will be happy to create additional pages on this website for others to express their views on violence and revolution. Please email your thoughts to us for this purpose, or use our "comment" page (see the link at the bottom of this page).
When I think about the question of nonviolence and revolution I think of it by imagining the following scenario, which I think captures the realistic difference between what we would do if we did or did not adopt the philosophy of nonviolence.
Imagine this scenario:
There is a very large and popular movement in the U.S. for egalitarian revolution, and the ruling class is about to order the military to violently repress the movement. (Of course I would much prefer that the ruling class give up its power voluntarily without a fight, in which case we could remove the rich from power without any violence at all. We ALL agree on that! But the question is, "What if they decide to use force to remain in power; what do we do THEN?" We can't put all our eggs in the "Let's hope they give up power without a fight" basket, can we?)
For the sake of visualizing this, let's say that, following massive demonstrations across the entire country for egalitarianism and for removing the rich from power there was a huge crowd of demonstrators in front of the White House demanding that the president and his/her staff leave the White House as an indication that the rich were indeed giving up their power.
Now let's say that instead of agreeing to give up their power, the rich instead have ordered the 82nd Airborne Division to protect the White House from the "mob." Furthermore, the rich have ordered the military to violently remove the huge crowd of people (like the cops violently removed the Occupy folks from Dewey Square in Boston and similar places around the country) as a demonstration that the egalitarian revolutionary movement has been decisively repressed and egalitarians should abandon hope that they will ever be able to prevail. In other words, this confrontation between the people and the military is a make-or-break moment for egalitarian revolution, and everybody knows it.
Now imagine that the demonstrators are right in front of the soldiers, wondering what will happen next. The demonstrators, of course, hope that the soldiers will refuse orders to attack them. The demonstrators have devoted much effort already to persuade soldiers to join, not attack, the egalitarian revolutionary movement. But the demonstrators know that the soldiers are under strict discipline and would be severly punished--perhaps even executed--if they refused orders and were found guilty of treason. The demonstrators know that even if most soldiers personally support egalitarian revolution, they might still obey orders. Furthermore, the demonstrators know that at least some soldiers as well as some (perhaps many) police (who, unlike soldiers, are trained and conditioned to attack their fellow citizens) would be very willing to attack the revolutionaries when the order is given.
Knowing all of this, and knowing that the order to attack is about to be given to the soldiers, a demonstrator who does not subscribe to the philosophy of nonviolence uses a bullhorn to address the soldiers. She says:
"Refuse orders to attack us. Instead, use your weapons to defend us against those who might violently attack us."
But immediately after this, another demonstrator, who does subscribe to the philosophy of nonviolence, takes the bullhorn and says to the soldiers:
"No, do not defend us with your weapons. We would rather be defeated than to succeed with violence!"
If you were one of these demonstrators, would you be angry or happy on hearing the second, nonviolent, demonstrator's speech?
I would be angry. Here's why. If the nonviolent demonstrator's words were obeyed by the soldiers, then the likely outcome would be the utter defeat of the egalitarian revolutionary movement. While some--perhaps most--of the soldiers would refuse the orders to attack the demonstrators, the remaining soldiers and probably a good number of police would indeed violently attack the demostrators and thereby destroy the egalitarian revolutionary movement. Even if there were subsequent egalitarian revolutionary uprisings across the nation, the same scenario would presumably play out: military and police forces (even if only the minority willing to obey orders) would violently repress the egalitarians. After the defeat in front of the White House, soldiers who may previously have been considering disobeying orders would realize now that the revolutionary movement is not going to win and any soldier disobeying orders would be on the losing side and severely punished. Very few soldiers now would disobey orders.
As a result of the defeat of the egalitarian revolutionary movement the rich will remain in power. This means that mass murderers (literally!! [click here for details]) will remain in power. Countless innocent people will die as a result--people who would have lived had there been a successful egalitarian revolution.
Had the soldiers who supported the demonstrators obeyed the words of the first demonstrator, who did not adhere to the philosophy of nonviolence, then they would have made it clear that they would use their weapons not against the demonstrators but against anyone who attacked them violently--other soldiers or police. This alone would have persuaded any soldier or police officer inclined to attack the demonstrators to think twice about it. Yes, there might have been some violence if any soldiers did attack the demonstrators. The pro-revolutionary soldiers would have used violence to defend the demonstrators against those attacking them violently. So yes, the revolution would have used violence in self defense, in order to remove from power the mass murderers who control the United States. Countless lives would have been saved!
I hope this scenario helps to clarify what is actually at stake in the question of adhering or not adhering to the philosophy of nonviolence. I believe that Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence is very wrongheaded, and I spell out my reasons in "Are You Sure You Hold to the Philosophy of Nonviolence? [click here]"
Non-Violence or Non-Cruelty?
I think that for most people who say they believe in nonviolence, their actual concern is non-cruelty. The popularization of nonviolence as a philosophy in the United States rose dramatically only in recent years. Why? I think it is because in recent years we have witnessed violence that is in no way justified as self-defense. I am referring to violence against unarmed non-combatant civilians, violence usually labeled nowadays as terrorism: suicide bombings of people at a bus stop or a restaurant in Israel, planes crashing into the World Trade Towers on 9/11 and killing thousands of civilians, and so forth.
Some people, very wrongly, defend this kind of violence and call it "resistance." PDR--Boston disagrees. PDR--Boston says: 1) Terrorism is not resistance, and resistance is not terrorism. 2) Terrorism is cruelty; it is violence deliberately targeted against noncombatant civilians and it is morally wrong. 3) Violence that is not in self-defense is morally wrong, and terrorist violence against noncombatant civilians is not in self-defense. 4) Terrorist violence does nothing--absolutely nothing--to weaken the forces of oppression; in fact it strengthens the oppressors by allowing them to claim they are the ones defending innocent people from harm. (I've been writing on this point for many years; here's one example [click here].)
The ruling elite have promoted the philosophy of nonviolence (for us, not them!) by making it seem as if violence equals terrorism, so if you're opposed to terrorism you must therefore subscribe to the philosophy of nonviolence. This is an ideological trap in which many people have fallen. Yes, terrorism is violence. But it is NOT violence in self-defense. Terrorism is cruelty. Rejecting terrorism does not necessarily mean rejecting violence in self-defense. It means rejecting cruelty.
There are situations (such as when one's government is controlled by mass murderers) when the actual choice is between violence in self-defense and the perpetuation of extreme cruelty to others.
The philosophy of non-cruelty says that it is morally right to use violence against a person if it is required to prevent that person from violently harming another person. If soldiers in the above scenario used violence (or the threat of it) against other soldiers or police, who were violently attacking demonstrtors, in order to protect the demonstrators, then they would be acting in compliance with the philosophy of non-cruelty. The Baha'i faith, for example, opposes violence in revenge for evil, but says (in paragraph 5 here), "The law of the community will punish the aggressor but will not take revenge. This punishment has for its end to warn, to protect and to oppose cruelty and transgression so that other men may not be tyrannical."
I call upon those egalitarians who presently subscribe to the philosophy of nonviolence to reconsider. Isn't it all cruelty, rather than all violence, that you oppose? Isn't non-cruelty (doing whatever you can to prevent cruelty) a form of mutual aid?
Postscript: The scenario I discuss above is, of course, just an imaginary scenario. The question of violence by oppressed people against oppressors arises in many other kinds of situations. I wrote about this question of violence in the context of the debate on guns and gun-control laws in my article, "Guns and the Working Class."
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