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Violence – did somebody mention violence?[1]
The inter-relationship of violence, ethics, and revolution

Many of those committed to the human project, namely the total transformation of social relationships, tend to adopt an ‘end justifies the means’ approach[2]. This position was attributed to Leon Trotsky, although on this rare occasion, one has to concede that the arch counter-revolutionary took a more nuanced approach when examining the relationship between means and end.[3]

Michael ‘Bommi’ Baumann, a working-class German who was familiar with violence as a daily fact of his social existence, was a member of the movement that pre-dated and spawned the Red Army Faction.[4] He ended up horrified by the clinical attitude to violence of the largely middle-class Baader-Meinhof tendency, and felt that their use of firearms was a literal means of distancing the activist from their target, and thus avoiding the human complexities of their acts. These problematics touch on the thorny issue of ethics, which many regard as being an infinitesimally small step away from ‘morals’, with all the associated whiff of incense, piety, and prayer books.

Others tend to elide the question, due to their unexamined liberal predilections, and assume that they will wake up one morning, smell the cordite issuing from the guns of their comrades, and set out about this transformation of society thingy.

The third and final attitude might be summed as ‘the psycho gun for hire’. We have come across a tiny number of people in the UK non-pacifist, extra-parliamentary milieu, who [generally] have floated from the far right to the ultra-left, in search of the opportunity to commit violence on others, as an undifferentiated expression of their social rage.[5] One could say that such people act as a salutary reminder of the dangers attendant in practice becoming divorced from theory.[6]

Women are notable by their relative absence from the ‘physical force’ school, arguably not only because they are put off by knuckle-headed machismo or do not feel sufficiently conversant in the language of street violence. To somewhat trivially paraphrase the reductionist anthropological distinction, one could ascribe this to women’s role as ‘life-givers’ rather than ‘life-takers’. However, this demeans many women’s pragmatic scepticism regarding a particularly male propensity (a) to deal with ambiguity by ‘direct action’ and (b) to enforce self-identity via the negative self-definition inherent in group formation, ie, that which is not within the ‘camp’ is inherently suspect and therefore inimical.

And what of violence in the name of non-revolutionary or counter-revolutionary action? In particular, this will cause much head-scratching in relation to nationalist struggles, which although ultimately serving the agendas of a putative indigenous ruling class in the making, are often enacted in good faith by the ‘foot soldiers’, guided by the understandable, but ultimately misguided, belief that the expulsion of an alien oppressor will be the panacea they seek.

What is violence? It is both the military bullet to the spine, state torture etc, and starvation, malnutrition, shortened life expectancy, higher exposure to preventable disease, lack of freedom of movement and choice, and so on. Difficult as it may be for some of us to do, one cannot help but acknowledge the desire for vindication and even revenge by the powerless against the powerful, when faced by these choices.

The skull beneath the skin of ‘civil’ society is of course police violence, enacted by a force whose membership is probably attracted to ‘the job’ in greater proportion than guns for hire are represented in extra-parliamentary politics, and who are protected by the State and an exonerating judiciary[7]. In the British middle-class segment of the UK, at least, the myth of the friendly bobby on the beat has obfuscated the habitual and historical use of arbitrary violence against the working class, and buttressed the formal [if undeclared] processes that protect the ‘law enforcers’.[8]

So where does this leave us? To paraphrase the Situationists, it appears to be a matter of ‘using chaos without loving it’. That is to say, force [action] without wisdom [theory] is a form of alienated fetishism. Equally, relying on others to do the ‘dirty work’ perpetuates a division of labour between ‘doers’ and ‘thinkers’. Therefore the synthesis or transcendence [aufheben][9] of these polarities expressed as praxis[10] remains an urgent priority.

Hasta la proxima, compañeras/os.

Fulano de Tal

[1] With apologies to the Furry Freak Brothers.

[2] A maxim that apparently originated in an accusation made by Protestants against the Jesuits, according to the website, a source we cannot vouchsafe, but which adopts an interestingly eclectic to the designation of the term ‘Marxist’

[3] This tolerance should be contextualised by Trotsky’s injunction that the proletarian sailor insurgents of Kronstadt should be “shot like partridges”.

[4] Baumann’s autobiography, “Terror or Love”, is well worth reading.

[5] Arguably, there are echoes of this sociopathy in Eldridge Cleaver’s position that rape carried out by black men on white women is somehow ‘revolutionary’.

[6] As Horace noted “force without wisdom falls by its own weight”.

[7] For example, Lord Denning’s comment during an unsuccessful appeal by the Birmingham Six, all Irish Catholics. wrongly convicted of bombing two public houses and killing 21 people, and later exonerated and released: “Just consider the course of events if their action were to proceed to trial. If the six men failed it would mean that much time and money and worry would have been expended by many people to no good purpose. If they won, it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted in evidence; and that the convictions were erroneous. … That was such an appalling vista [our emphasis] that every sensible person would say, ‘It cannot be right that these actions should go any further’”. In other words, ‘too much reality’ [as TS Eliot would have it] risks upsetting the applecart.

[8] The agents of capital will not willingly relinquish the reins of power, although, subject to appropriate checks and balances, we should accept deserters into our ranks.

[9] For an interesting definition of this Hegelian term, please refer to

[10] As Marx’s criticism of fetishised intellectualism [which in the current discussion, also implies its opposite, namely mindless activism] put it in his Theses on Feuerbach: “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”.

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