Thesis: Freedom, Violence and Revolution: A Critique of Liberal Democratic Conventions
Table of Contents
- Isaiah Berlin and the Two Concepts of Liberty
- Freedom and Violence within Hannah Arendt’s “On Revolution”
- Violence and its Justifications
- The Russian Revolutions of February and October 1917
This thesis seeks to explore the relationship between freedom, violence and revolution, seen as a complex, interactive unity. Its immediate purpose is to elucidate the many liminal spaces where these three conceptual paradigms intersect — where freedom may require the use of violence, and in the extreme case, revolution, in order to maintain and assert itself. The method used is philosophical and analytical and is grounded within many different and often competing conceptual frameworks of diverse authors. In Chapter 1 I will broach Isaiah Berlin’s seminal essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ and compare and contrast it with other writers in the freedom literature. In Chapter 2 I conceptualize freedom and violence within Hannah Arendt’s work ‘On Revolution’ while in Chapter 3 I find and elaborate the various justifications for violence. Lastly in Chapter 4 I ground these discussions in a concrete historical reality of the February and Bolshevik Revolutions of 1917.
The central question this thesis will attempt to answer is: to what extent are the concepts of freedom and violence reconcilable, or for that matter, irreconcilable. Revolutions will be seen as a practical, historical instance of such ‘freedom-violence’ interactions.
The topic of violence and its connection to freedom is an ancient one. Plato never theorized exclusively about violence, but one could argue that his philosophy demarcated between an orderly non-violent way of living, that of the intellect, and of a disorderly chaotic and violent passion. He expressed this sentiment most famously in his Phaedrus: “Now the winged horses and the charioteers of the gods are all of them noble and of noble descent, but those of other races are mixed; the human charioteer drives his in a pair; and one of them is noble and of noble breed, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble breed; and the driving of them of necessity gives a great deal of trouble to him.” (Plato 246b ) It was this type of thinking which began the immediate disdain for violence in Western political philosophy. Aristotle used the term ‘force’ quite extensively in his philosophy, especially in his “Metaphysics” “Physics” and “On the Heavens” covering both natural objects and political goals — “Violence is understood here as such kind of necessity, which is associated with the suppression of freedom (‘will’), something ‘frustrating desire’ (‘realization of one’s own will’) and contradicts ‘common sense’, as well as the absence of ‘good’. Violence appears not only as a ‘necessity’ in its ontological sense, but also existentially, as the opposite of ‘good’ and one’s own ‘desire’. (Borisov et al. 4) Both Plato and Aristotle’s worldview coincides with an orderliness that contradicts, at least implicitly, the use of violence even though both thinkers reserved the use of force for the state.
After the ancients, the most immediate thinker who grabs our attention with regards to violence is the infamous Niccolo Machiavelii. Machiavelli follows in the tradition of the ancients, however, he makes more space for the use of extralegal, and even vicious forms of violence to maintain order and peace: “Thus you must know that there are two kinds of combat: one with laws, the other with force. The first is proper to man, the second to beasts; but because the first is often not enough, one must have recourse to the second” (Machiavelli 70). This shows a progression in the history of thought concerning political violence and freedom since here is a thinker who claims that the very force which threatens the state (chaos, disorder, violence) must be responded to with the same type of violence.
It is precisely the overwhelming fear of such ‘beastly’ violence which drove Thomas Hobbes to theorize a solution to that dreaded “war of all against all” which the state of nature supposedly: “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Hobbes 97). The fear of violence is the impetus to creating a stronger, more centralized state which will use the necessary violence to preserve itself against barbarism from within and without. John Locke would further expand the conceptual grounds of justification for keeping order within a state through his democratic writings.
These classical thinkers would later be superseded by more modern views on the permissibility of violence by oppressed groups, however oppression became to be defined. This occurred especially after World War II, with the concomitant rise of anti-colonialism and various Marxist revolutionary movements around the world.
The strength of the past classical writers is their ability to identify and verbalize the kinds of things we want in good government and good rule. The ancients passed down to us a set of ethical guidelines which made a peaceful, orderly life able to be lived. The weakness, and only Machiavelli among the ancients realized this, is that the essence of goodness makes it vulnerable to defeat from evil precisely because it is not willing to take the same kinds of outrageous, but effective, actions that the evil are willing to take. Moreover, the ancients and the moderns, ignored the perspectival nature of political reality, that we live in wildly unequal and disparate worlds within every state, and that sometimes such disparateness leads to the oppression of a select group of people by disembodied social systems. This is precisely the area of interest which my thesis deals with — the non-universal, and hence non-ancient and non-modern, position many oppressed peoples find themselves in.
Chapter 1: Isaiah Berlin and the Two Concepts of Liberty
Isiah Berlin’s essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” is divided into an introduction and eight chapters. We may, however, write that there truly exists only three sections if we are to cordon sections through unity of purpose. The first is the exposition of negative freedom. The second is the exposition of positive freedom. The third, which subsumes six chapters into one, is the philosophical and historical substance of positive freedom (termed self-realization in this section).
The introduction reveals two major facts about the philosophy and Weltanschauung of Berlin. First, the main telos of his essay, besides a general desire to create conceptual clarity, is to clarify the emergence and popularity of utopian philosophies in the 20th century. This is what James Tully called the truly original aspect of the essay, since the bifurcation of freedom into positive and negative had been a hallmark of political thinking for over a millennium. (Tully 25) Second, the fact that the history of ideas has a tangible impact on human affairs throughout time. This must be a declaration and revelation of the philosophical method Berlin uses to analyze information. It is through the history of ideas that we take meaning and sense of the causes of our political, moral and economic reality. Berlin rightfully states that only a very vulgar historical materialism would deny the impact of the power of ideas on history, and its development, and with this I take no exception. I do, however, find the conceptual separability of Berlin’s two concepts of liberty, of positive and negative freedom, to be fictional, and ahistorical, that is to say Belin’s thematic collection of different freedoms does not correspond to the real development of thought, especially the thinkers he has cited. For example, the classical notion of negative freedom developed by the English political philosophers Hobbes and Bentham, cannot be separated from these thinker’s own respective conceptions of positive freedom. Bentham’s desire for the curtailment of political interference into the lives of individuals is in no sense separable from his positive conception of utilitarianism — it is precisely because he sees “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” (Bentham 104) does he propose that there be restrictions, to promote such a freedom. Similarly Hobbes promotes the Leviathan to champion the civil liberties of political and social freedom, which requires as its weapon coercion. But we should not mistake the weapon for the reason.
It is hard not to come to the understanding that negative freedom is not actually a freedom at all, but rather a peculiar and partial reflection on the nature of philosophical arguments for freedom. All arguments for freedom will contain a measure of coercion, the sine non qua of negative freedom. It begs the question as to why Berlin has created such a large focus on negative freedom, a procedural emphasis on non-interference. I am largely in agreement with Tully that Berlin’s endorsement of negative freedom, or a form of proceduralism, derives from a peculiar historical context of the Cold War, and that the nature of this essay is polemical to a degree such that it loses analytical rigor. Berlin’s purpose is to defend a “Western” notion of freedom, the backbone of liberal, market capitalism, or as Tully aptly labels it, “primitive accumulation” against the so-called positive freedom of the Soviet Union, or a state that is perceived more firmly based in collective self-rule than negative freedom. (Tully 44) This is a polemical piece defending the Western worldview and position on the global stage, rather than a dispassionate analysis of freedom qua freedom. This is the only explanation for Berlin to uphold (selectively, it must be stressed) advocates of pure negative freedom. The first-order question now may be answered why he even cares to create two different freedoms, when intuitively freedom is a unified concept although perhaps with different content. It is no accident that the kind of negative freedom he stresses, a pure freedom from interference, coincides with the purest form of market capitalism and liberalism existent in the late 1950s and early 1960s, spearheaded by the dual powers of the United States and Great Britain.
- Negative Freedom
In this chapter Berlin sets out three major points: the definition, substance and scope of negative freedom itself; coercion as it applies to negative freedom; and oppression as it applies to negative freedom.
Berlin’s argument for negative freedom can be broken down into five parts, all corresponding to different parts of his argument as read chronologically: 1. Essence 2. Exception 1 (Natural Deficiencies) 3. Exception 2 (Self-slavery) 4. Deontology of Coercion 5. Limitations. In this section I have put my own five main critiques: 1. Interdependence of Passions 2. Structural Violence, 3. Contradictions of Individualism and 4. Interdependence of Values, 5.The Vacuity (or Hidden Content) of Negative Freedom
Berlin originates negative freedom in the classical English tradition of political thinkers (Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, Paine, Mill), stating that freedom consists in one’s activity being free from coercion. To the extent I can control my own independent sphere of action, and not be forced to do something other than what I wished, is the extent to which I am free: “I am said to be free to the degree to which no human being interferes with my activity” (Berlin 4) We may label this form of negative freedom the “classical conception” : Negative freedom is defined as non-interference by either the state, society or other individuals. By this he means to say that there is a certain sphere of freedom allotted to the individual which should not be violated. To the extent an individual is not coerced, is the extent to which he possesses negative freedom.
Exception 1 (Natural Deficiencies)
Berlin moves from the conceptual definition of negative freedom to a more rounded metaphysical account, focusing on what an individual may achieve and what his inabilities may be. He rules out naturalistic barriers to negative freedom, i.e. he reaffirms that political philosophy should not consider happenstance, or ill fortune, of political relevance: “If I say that I am unable to jump more than ten feet in the air, or cannot see because I am blind, or cannot understand the more esoteric pages of Hegel, it would be eccentric to say that I was to that degree enslaved or coerced” (Berlin 4).This makes sense. It is not too hard to share the same commonsense approach to the world that things beyond the scope of human control are not political in nature — an earthquake cannot be considered coercive, it is simply a natural event. Berlin correctly channels the notion that “coercion” as a concept is rooted in human psychology as a word for the actions or misactions of our peers. Nature is not coercive, at least not in a political sense.
Exception 2 (Self-slavery) and Interdependence of Passions
Berlin also rules out a second sense in which a person may be coerced. Not only should we ignore natural disabilities, but also being enslaved to one’s own passions. Berlin states that such an enslavement, which he notes is real and palpable, is not coercion because it is not due to another person: If someone is described as a slave to his passions, for instance, there is a feeling, which is quite correct, that the word is being used in a somewhat metaphorical sense. Certainly there is a sense in which he is not free; and this sense is of the greatest importance, as will, I hope, presently be made clear. But it is not primarily a political sense” (Berlin 4). I am in agreement with Berlin that insofar as a passion is internalized and isolated, a person cannot be called meaningfully coerced. But this is a matter of extent, circumstances and empiricism. It is very plausible that passions which enslave men and women, such as alcoholism and drug dependence, among others, are entirely due to other people, due to habituation and socialization. For example, it is a known fact that Native Americans suffer more from alcohol-related diseases than their white compeers, and it is further known that the real differences between these two social/racial groups is their socio-economic stories. This is our first example of indirect coercion, which as we shall see Berlin struggles to conceptualize. It is true that no one individual is forcing a Native American to drink, but the complex socio-economic relations which constitute a real reality, almost a real personhood (perhaps one we can call Leviathan), are coercing the individual.
Deontology of Coercion and Structural Violence
According to Berlin, coercion is the deliberate restraining of an individual’s negative freedom: “Coercion implies the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I wish to act” (Berlin 4) This is justified on the grounds that the mutual desire for negative freedom by individuals within a society cannot be attained unless negative freedom is limited for each individual. An unlimited negative freedom for any single individual i.e. complete non-interference would result in the incursion of other individuals negative freedom.
The first aspect to note is the implied deontology behind the actuality of coercion. The operative criterion for coercion according to Berlin is not the reality of being deprived of negative freedom but the intentionality behind the restriction. This eliminates the possibility of truly coercive scenarios where no single individual is responsible but rather a disembodied system of moral, political and economic relations. Using one of Berlin’s examples of “inabilities” which are the results of coercion, namely the inability to read because of blindness, it is possible to show the flaw in the deontological and individualistic conception of coercion.
While it may be true that blindness caused by chance or genetics is an inability which is not coercive in nature, this definition of deliberateness in coercion ignores scenarios like blindness caused by a dearth of doctors or medical equipment in a socio-economically disadvantaged community. Similarly, for the most part malnutrition does not exist because of a dearth of food, but rather the complex and unequal distribution of food within societies. This seems to me to be inherently coercive since these factors severely restrict the ability of these individuals to be left to their own devices. This is to talk of coercion in the negative sense which Berlin has posited.
Contradictions of Individualism
Structural violence, the notion that political, economic and social structures may be the cause of violence within society, is more convincing and comprehensive an explanation for coercion in society. Why does Berlin ignore this? I think it has to do with the inherently self-contradictory nature of individualism, coercion and negative freedom. The kind of individualism which Berlin subscribes to becomes self-contradictory when we realize that no individual lives alone, isolated, but rather deeply enmeshed within social and political groups. Since this philosophy only treats discreet individuals as the elements of the science, it falls to pieces when it comes to a society. We may even contradict this form of individualism from the inside as it were, using Hobbes’ notion of Leviathan. Leviathan, as the summation of a society, is that ultimate contradiction: an individual and a group simultaneously. But Leviathan is constituted of warring factions. Therefore Leviathan can oppress, or coerce itself, or at least components of itself. Individualism then from its own roots grows to curtail itself, precisely because it recognizes that there are collective effects from individual behaviour. This is to say the same thing as calling Leviathan an alien concept to individualism, or if it is to be found within individualism, its heterogeneity must be acknowledged as it is distinct from any meaningful notion of an individual.
Let us deepen the above analysis by stating that Leviathan, or a form of collective self-rule, or positive freedom, is intrinsic to the concept of negative freedom. This is another failure of Berlin’s theory, namely that he cannot truly distinguish between positive and negative freedom, All it takes to see this is the fact that negative freedom, or non-interference is not done randomly but so as to ensure collective self-rule itself can occur, instead of warring individuals within a polity. Negative freedom is a sine non qua of the benefits of Leviathan. Negative freedom has a telos which is beyond its own definition.
We can glean from his implicit assumptions about poverty and structural economic conditions through his tone and diction within the essay that he is personally against structuralism as a theory. “If my poverty, were a kind of disease…this inability would not naturally be described as a lack of freedom,” he thus equates poverty with a natural state of things, as opposed to a social construction. (Berlin 5) He is highly skeptical and dismissive of oppression as a reality, but rather a belief system: “The use of the term [economic slavery] depends on a particular social and economic theory about the causes of my poverty or weakness” (Berlin 6) He goes on to state that oppression of this economic sort only exists “if I accept the theory” (Berlin 6).
It is clear from the preceding paragraph that Berlin outright denies the existence of structural oppression, diminishing its significance from an actuality to a belief system. He provides no evidence for why this is the case. Conversely, it would take the most cursory research to show countless empirical instances of structural oppression from the slavery of African-Americans to the rigid segregation of apartheid South Africa.
This then is the prime conceptual flaw in Berlin’s negative freedom — it cannot, or does not, incorporate, instances of structural oppression and coercion. It is as if humans lived in a void separated from impersonal systemic forces embedded within society. It is also a reflection of his justification of the status quo in which he lived.
Limitations and Interdependence of Values
Berlin justifiably remarks that negative freedom can be curtailed for the protection of other values such as equality justice and fraternity: “ If liberty were the only goal which men pursued, this would be a frustration of it; as it is, it is an attempt to compromise between their desire for liberty and their need for a minimum of food, shelter, security and whatever other basic needs men have which cannot be secured without some interdependence, entailing some loss of individual liberty” (Berlin 5) But I believe this is not entirely true for conceptual reasons. Berlin, immersed in his philosophical method of neatly delineating different concepts, ignores the fact that the concepts of justice, equality and fraternity, are not independent from each other. Equality is circumstantially contributory to a lack of negative freedom. Just as justice and injustice are coexistent with a lack of negative freedom. What I mean by this, is that the content of our values collide and mix when we talk about them. For example, a country whose judicial branch discriminates against a certain group, could be based mutually within a framework of inequality (that the group is unequal to the dominant group) or injustice i.e. they are being deprived of meaningful law-based decisions because of their unequal position.
It is impossible to make a simple discreet argument for the separate unity of these values when these concepts are so deeply enmeshed. A lack of justice is a decrease in negative freedom when society interferes with my sphere of control. Similarly inequality exists because some have more (or less) negative freedom than others, at least in the economic sphere.
The Vacuity (or Hidden Content) of Negative Freedom
Lastly we must acknowledge that as Berlin has constructed freedom, it is obtusely vacuous. By obtusely, I mean to say that Berlin is sneaking in his own form of positive freedom when he constructs negative freedom, namely that non-interference is a worthy form of positive freedom. In reality any justification of negative freedom comes from positive freedom — we restrict people according to our own conceptions of freedom (and justice and other values). This is to say that negative freedom is a means, or conditions, for positive freedom. It can also be the substance in the case of Berlin who seems to value non-interference for its own sake. But really this position, this meta-negative freedom, or negative freedom for the sake of negative freedom truly is vacuous and devoid of the real reasons for freedom. As we may ask, who values freedom in the negative as an absolute? These individuals can only claim to value absolute negative freedom if they hide their personalities and desires from everyone else, because non-interference can only be the means for meaningful, free activity, and which activity forms the real core of freedom, not the non-interference. It is to cower from making any meaningful decision on how to run a society, and instead to leave all members of that society to war over the ultimate ends of life.
And moreover, when such a truly impartial view to freedom arises, a purely mathematical distinction between people, allowing for maximal non-interference to all, it is quite possible that unequally endowed populations will revert into a strong-vs-weak mentality, because the playing-field is not adjusted nor equilibrated but rather allows natural differences to widen. This is to say that pure liberalism, or pure meta-negative freedom, includes a hidden positive freedom of which it unwittingly, or wittingly, promotes. This is to say that by identifying with neutral, procedural negative freedom, one is not escaping a particular positive freedom; a positive freedom which is just as controversial as other forms are. There is no escaping a conception of positive freedom, even by hiding behind a neutral procedural negative freedom. Therefore the pluralism of Berlin should not be seen as a mature, evenheaded and comprehensive view to positive freedom, but rather a political stance, as disputable and controversial as any other.
This point is made in contrast to the volonte generale of Rousseau in which a large enough part of the population can come to a conclusion about the ultimate ends of life, and implement it politically. Pluralism may represent a metaphysical truth about the irreconcilability of ultimate ends of life, but it does not follow that our politics should represent a metaphysical truth. Politics concerns the collective decision of a people to decide their fate. And although there will always be discreet minorities who differ from a given volonte generale, that should not discourage the collective desire to blaze a certain, distinct political model of positive freedom.
Moreover, we have the example of private property which is grounded in negative freedom superficially but really requires an entire superstructure of positive freedom to justify. Only if the goals of a society are the self-actualization of the individual qua capitalism will the law and society itself justify the non-imposition of government or the collective on the individual.
- Positive Freedom
Positive freedom is not the opposite of negative freedom, as confusing as it may seem. Positive freedom is the phenomenological counterpart of negative freedom, the desire to be a subject from the point of view of the self, however that self may be defined: “The positive sense of the word ‘liberty’ derives from the desire on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and my decisions to depend on myself and not on external forces of whatever kind” (Berlin 14) It is the desire to seek freedom on one’s own terms. Berlin is ultimately skeptical, dismissive and wary of positive freedom schools, schools of which he associates a decline in civilization into despotism and authoritarianism like the Soviet Union and Jacobin France. Berlin names two routes to the “true” self: self-abnegation and self-realization. These two routes form the crux of the remaining essay.
Berlin situates his positive freedom in a rationalistic framework — the ability to be a thinking, willing self-directed being is the essence of his freedom. The identification of freedom with reason belongs to an ancient tradition of argument and debate — thinkers from Aristotle to Kant have made the same identification.
Berlin argues convincingly that there is a lengthy historical and philosophical tradition concerning the route to positive freedom through self-abnegation. His argument ultimately is that this is not a true sense of positive freedom since it extinguishes the true desires of individuals i.e. society has limited the agency of the subject. This happens particularly during troublesome political times, and since the agent cannot achieve his goals and merely eliminates them as goals as such, Berlin calls extreme self-abnegation a “sublime form of the doctrine of sour grapes”. (Berlin 22)
Rationalism and Nietzschean Irrationalism
The essence of self-realization is that individuals, and societies, wish to be rationally self-directed. Berlin takes as axiomatic critical reason, or the distinguishing between what is necessary and what is contingent. It is through a process of self-identification with the external world, that one transforms the external into a kind of internal texture of freedom. By identifying with the laws of mathematics and physics, one becomes capable of manipulating those magisteria of knowledge. Berlin states that one cannot wish to remain rational, and deny something that the necessarily rational impels on the mind.
Self-realization forms the remainder and third part of the essay, categorizing ultimately different forms of attaining self-realization. There are three types of routes to self-realization: 1. Enlightenment Rationalism 2. Romanticism, or Individual Enlightenment 3. Group Belonging.
Let us begin with Enlightenment Rationalism. This is the dual belief that there are necessary laws of rationality through which both the individual and society can find an ultimate, harmonious state of being. Berlin astutely notes the contradictory nature of enlightenment values where in the name of rationality certain uneducated masses can be subject to rational coercion and despotism. I would like to point out one more time the fact that it is not only positive freedom in the guise of enlightenment rationalism which leads to despotism, but also negative freedom whose intellectual justifications are much the same as its positive counterpart. For this reason, a despotic nation can come about through both negative forms (think of the Pinochet regime in Chile whose mad insistence on Western-style development meant the brutal killing and suppression of many thousands of Chileans) and positive forms( i.e. Revolutionary France and Russia)
Romanticism, or Individual Enlightenment is the belief that a single individual’s vision of a rational society can be imposed on the rest of humanity.It is closely tied to the heroic ethic and enlightened despots like Napoleon. On the other hand, Group Belonging or the search for status is the belief that self-realization has nothing to do with a grand scheme of rationality but rather the desire to be treated with equal dignity of a specific group e.g. clan, tribe, religion.
Confounding of values and the Interdependence of Values
Lastly the confounding of values is the belief that self-realization does not consist of positive freedom but rather justice equality or some other value. It is this belief which Berlin correctly notes has led to wildly illiberal societies such as the revolutionary France of the 18th century. But we may question the independence of these ultimate values, as I have done so in my section on negative freedom. Only a strict academic sense of the word freedom can ignore the various interplays and interactions of equality, since many freedoms are dependent on equality itself.
The ultimate conclusion Berlin arrives at in his chapter “The One and the Many” is that positive freedom or self-realization consists of an irreconcilable pluralism. The preceding forms of self-realization are not compatible with each other and hence produce the tragedy of life. Positive freedom is a ceaseless struggle between different advocates of different positive freedoms. And this is what constitutes the eternity of discord within politics in the introduction of the essay
Utopia and Positive Freedom
It is understandable and internally consistent that Berlin denies the possibility or even desirability of utopia. Ultimate pluralism suggests that no final solution exists — different people have different conceptions of the end-state of history. And to impose any one conception of utopia is to create the paternalism so despised by Kant (upon whom Berlin relies heavily, both implicitly and explicitly) But let us consider for a second the meta-theoretical problem, namely that Berlin’s upholding of pluralism is ironically founded on enlightenment rationalism. Kant’s ideology is a rational scheme which Berlin admits contradicts itself, producing the self-contradictory nature of rationalism. Therefore pluralism might be a metaphysical and political truth, yet it does not strictly follow that pluralism itself should be accepted as a political reality. Berlin takes no stance on which form of positive freedom is the most legitimate or worthy of adoption . This leaves us, perhaps forlornly, in the controversial realm of politics and not the indisputable realm of mathematics or strictly necessary sciences. Taking no stance on positive freedom, and hiding behind a purely negative freedom, is, as I have demonstrated before, to adopt a peculiar brand of positive freedom, and ironically to adopt a stance.
Charles Taylor’s contribution to Berlin’s essay
In his 1979 paper “What’s wrong with negative liberty?”, Charles Taylor builds on the conceptual framework erected by Berlin by critiquing negative freedom. Essentially his main critique is that negative liberty, in its crude, hardline “Hobbes-Bentham” vision of negative freedom is indefensible: “On the other side, there is a corresponding caricatural version of negative freedom which tends to come to the fore. This is the tough-minded version, going back to Hobbes, or in another way to Bentham, which sees freedom simply as the absence of external physical or legal obstacles.” (Taylor 142) It is untenable because there exists “internal barriers” to freedom such as internalized fears and false consciousness, which are clearly extrinsic to the definition of negative freedom (external obstacles) but which meaningfully impact a commonsensical approach to freedom as self-realization:“We can fail to achieve our own self-realization through inner fears, or false consciousness, as well as because of external coercion. Thus the modern notion of negative freedom which gives weight to the securing of each person’s right to realize him/herself in his/her own way cannot make do with the Hobbes/Bentham notion of freedom. The moral psychology of these authors is too simple, or perhaps we should say too crude, for its purposes.” (Taylor 143) In short naive theories of negative liberty ignore self-realization; the proponents of such a theory elide the scope and substance of positive freedom.
Taylor’s contribution is a meaningful one, a strong stance for positive freedom (by demolishing naive conceptions of negative freedom). His essay forces proponents of negative freedom to search the inner, implicit source for freedom which cannot be found in the strict objectivity of a materialist worldview proposed by Hobbes, but rather in the subjectivity of the individual agent.
Taylor makes the negative theorist confront the true substantial reasons for freedom, since he pushes them from the naive, simplistic model of pure non-interference into a more holistic notion of self-realization. This can be done in another simple way. When a negative theorist says that there should be maximal non-interference, one should question them why because the second layer of reasoning concerns the substance of freedom, and the raison d’etre of putting barriers to coercion. We put limits to interference not because it is an Absolute, but because it is conducive to individual self-realization. And this is precisely what Taylor has shown.
Taylor has drawn our attention to what I mentioned in my section on negative freedom, namely that there is a kind of vacuousness to the concept of negative freedom (or at least the naive version). Only when we accept that self-realization is the true reason for negative freedom, or the individual’s own path to self-realization apart from society, can we see that naive negative freedom is deeply problematic. He states that there is a two-step process to reaching positive freedom from negative freedom, an addition to the literature that is not covered by Berlin: “Indeed, one can represent the path from the negative to the positive conceptions of freedom as consisting of two steps: the first moves us from a notion of freedom as doing what one wants to a notion which discriminates motivations and equates freedom with doing what we really want, or obeying our real will, or truly directing our lives. The second step introduces some doctrine purporting to show that we cannot do what we really want, or follow our real will, outside of a society of a certain canonical form, incorporating true self-government.” (Taylor 148) The two step process involves, first, discriminating between motivations behind freedom and second recognizing that only a collective pact, or a collective union of disharmonious aims is the only way to ensure autonomy.
Taylor adds to the content of positive freedom by showing that freedom consists in discriminating between different modes of being — that we come into society and existence with a priority list of activities which give meaning to our freedom: “Even where we think of freedom as the absence of external obstacles, it is not the absence of such obstacles simpliciter. For we make discriminations between obstacles as representing more or less serious infringements of freedom. And we do this, because we deploy the concept against a background understanding that certain goals and activities are more significant than others.” ( Taylor 149) It is because religion is so important for many that a religious restriction is so detrimental whereas a curtailing of freedom in the domain of traffic is not so bad. Furthermore, we humans have second order desires which determine the content of our freedom. The desire to have correct desires is something that the purely negative conception of freedom cannot fathom or incorporate.
It is possible to push further even and say that the original concept of negative freedom espoused by Berlin is not actually about freedom, but proceduralism. Taylor says as much when he calls negative freedom essentially an “opportunity” concept (Taylor 144); something where the substance of freedom is left to the reader’s imagination since he is left within the realm of potentiality. Only with positive freedom, or Berlin’s conception of self-realization does he develop the notion of self-realization in actuality. And so Taylor has crafted a bridge between positive and negative freedom, by showing that the second-order reason behind negative freedom is actually the same as positive freedom.
Ultimately we must come to a deeper understanding of what the problem of negative and positive freedom is. It is a matter of seeing the essential conceptual characteristics of negative and positive freedom. Negative freedom is at its core not concerned with freedom as such — it is concerned with the conditions necessary for positive freedom. That is the real difference, and why negative freedom cannot stand as a theory on its own. Taylor eludes to this by stating the stunned silence of those who advocate for negative freedom when it comes to conceptualizing the content of self-actualization. Positive freedom is a concept which logically and metaphysically corresponds to true conception of freedom, while negative freedom is merely a historical phenomenon of political philosophy detached from the metaphysics of freedom. Positive freedom entails potentially the whole scope of meaning for freedom. — that ultimate metaphysical desire to be a subject. Therefore Taylor is correct that positive freedom or self-actualization is the core of freedom.
Gerald C. MacCullum Jr. contribution to positive and negative freedom: The Triadic Relation
Gerald Maccullum makes a hugely significant contribution to the literature of positive and negative freedom by convincingly dismantling the entire edifice of this bifurcation of freedom. He argues that it is detrimental to the discussion and debate of freedom to separate it into two non differentiable concepts — that is positive and negative freedom are not mutually exclusive but rather coextensive. This makes sense. If we can roughly label negative freedom as “freedom from” and positive freedom “freedom to” then every single instance in which we talk about freedom we either implicitly or explicitly reference these two types of freedoms simultaneously. The Triadic relationship consists in three distinct formulae: first is who are the agents (x), the second is what are the restrictions (y — freedom from), the third is what is the action to be performed, or character to become (z — freedom to), or in MacCallum’s formulation: “Taking the format x is (is not) free from y to do (not do, become, not become) z , x ranges over agents, y ranges over such ‘preventing conditions’ as constraints, restrictions, interferences, and barriers, and z ranges over actions or conditions of character or circumstance.” (MacCallum 102).
This formulation is hugely important because it cuts to the heart of the matter the problem with creating a false “dyadic” relationship between the so-called two types of freedom, freedom from and freedom to:
Evidence of such failure or, alternatively, invitation to it is found in the simple but conventional characterization of the difference between the two kinds of freedom as the difference between ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’ — a characterization suggesting that freedom could be either of two dyadic relations. This characterization, however, cannot distinguish two genuinely different kinds of freedom; it can serve only to emphasize one or the other of two features of every case of the freedom of agents. Consequently, anyone who argues that ‘freedom from’ is the ‘only freedom, or that ‘freedom to’ is the ‘truest freedom, or that one is ‘more important than’ the other, cannot be taken as having said anything both straightforward and sensible about two distinct kinds of freedom. He can, at most, be said to be attending to, or emphasizing the importance of, only one part of what is always present in any case of freedom.” (MacCallum 106).
Using the triadic relationship we skip past the ontological arguments about the nature of freedom and instead compare likenesses to likenesses and differences to differences. That is instead of focusing on the nature of the type of freedom, we can meaningfully talk about the difference in conceptualization of ‘who’ the agent is in a free action, and what are the obstacles to freedom. We can compare the different conceptualizations people have, for example a proponent of positive freedom can now talk about how the agent of an action can also not be a human, but a structure, while the proponent of negative freedom can advocate the opposite. We allow a dialogue for meaningful discussions of differences.
The triadic relation should be accepted for its correspondence with the types of conversations we would like to have concerning freedom. If I talk merely in the negative sense of freedom, for example I am free from coercion, I leave out exactly half of the true content of freedom, for one may be a brain in a vat, free from coercion, but not free to do much. Conversely, if I talk in the positive sense of freedom, I am free to play football in my backyard, but I ignore the conditions which have made such playing possible, the conditions of preventing others from interfering in my life.
Having this simple and ingenious formulation of once a very complex issue, we may go back towards the original Berlin essay and critique his creation of the bifurcated concept of freedom. Berlin initially separated negative and positive freedom by creating an artificial separation between “freedom from” and “freedom to”. While this might be justified on the grounds that historically certain thinkers have emphasized one form of freedom over another, it ignores the nature of freedom qua freedom, as opposed to freedom qua history. MacCullum notes brilliantly that even the major proponents of negative freedom like John Locke have written statements which support their being major proponents of positive freedom. Moreover there is a difference between historical and philosophical analysis, and we may say that it is Berlin’s eclecticism in these two fields which produces confusion. What confusion is this? It is one thing to note a historical trend, a tendency to emphasize negative freedom, and another to analyze the concept of freedom on its own. Berlin’s historicalness interferes with his ability to conceptually analyze freedom since a real analysis of freedom is not based on historical appearance but rather logic.
In this chapter I have examined positive and negative freedom from several different authors. I make my stance clear, being of the camp of MacCullum: the concepts of positive and negative freedom are more confusing than they are enlightening. They achieve one thing expertly: namely that there is a dual-side to freedom. But as for classifying authors into different camps it is a failure. This is for one main single reason: any individual’s conception of freedom is unitary to the extent that it encomposses that individuals own internalized perception of “freedom from” and “freedom to” simultaneously. No human being works in the negative, and even if they did, to look only at the negative (or positive for that matter) would be wrong. For example, to state that a house is its shadow is wrong. To state that a house is just the house and not the shadow is also wrong. Only when you take a quantum approach, (the house is the house and its shadow at the same time) that is both positive and negative act together simultaneously (like subatomic particles which are in superposition) do you see the full picture of freedom. Therefore, all the authors in history even the ones supposedly most belonging to negative or positive freedom, have the opposite kind of freedom included in their philosophy either implicitly or explicitly. Marx, Rousseau, Kant, Hobbes, Locke, all take freedom qua freedom as their object and hence include both a sense of self-realization (positive freedom) and coercion or non-interference (negative freedom).
Chapter 2: Freedom and Violence within Hannah Arendt’s “On Revolution”
We will now use the analysis of chapter one to terse out the meaning and substance behind Hannah Arendt’s conception of freedom. By understanding Arendt’s view on political freedom, we will be able to comprehend her stance towards revolutions, and what makes one successful or a failure. Once we have her stance towards revolutions, I will proceed to elaborate the various conceptual flaws in her model of the American and French revolutions.
Political Freedom, positive and negative
I hope it has been sufficiency shown in my last chapter that the so-called theoretical distinctions between positive and negative freedom are more superifically disconnected than they are in actuality — any conception of freedom will contain elements of both positive and negative freedom. So it is with Hannah Arendt’s writings. In On Revolution it is possible to extract a conception of political freedom from Arendt’s analysis of the French and American Revolutions.
Arendt writes about two aspects of the American Revolution which resulted from that momentous political disturbance. First, the American constitution, that foundational document (and even event) for political freedom in the American colonies, instituted negative freedom, following a long history of constitutionalism: “However, the liberties which the laws of constitutional government guarantee are all of a negative character, and this includes the right of representation for the purposes of taxation which later became the right to vote; they are indeed ‘not powers of themselves, but merely an exemption from the abuses of power’” (Arendt 143). This is very much in line with the kind of negative freedom theorizing that we explored in chapter one, whose famous proponents include Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jeremy Bentham.
In contrast to the exclusive private realm allowed to Americans because of their constitution , Arendt denigrates the absolutism of the French Revolutionary government which simply substituted the absolute monarch for the absoluteness of the “Nation”, or the Rousseauian Volonte Generale: “It is tempting indeed to blame absolutism, the antecedent of all but the American Revolution, for the fact that its fall destroyed the whole fabric of European government together with the European community of nations, and that the flames of revolutionary conflagration, kindled by the abuses of the anciens regimes, eventually were to set the whole world on fire. (Arendt 158). Self-rule for Arendt, or the positive freedom “desire to be a subject” (Berlin 14) is incompatible with absolutism, even of the democratic kind. The General Will as an absolute leads to destruction and uncontrollable revolution, which results in chaos not political freedom. It is precisely when the Nation is considered a subject that it becomes a dangerous hegemon capable of the most savage brutality imaginable, as experienced at the height of the Jacob Reign of Terror. This is in line with Berlin’s view of the self-contradictory nature of Enlightenment Rationalism and the Rousseauian formula of being forced to be free.
Second, political freedom in Arendt’s positive sense concerns the balancing of political power against itself, in the famous separation of powers doctrine, and in the agreement between different parties to political compacts of mutuality. The US constitution achieved political freedom in that it balanced the competing interests of different actors within the US political scene: “Clearly, the true objective of the American Constitution was not to limit power but to create more power, actually to establish and duly constitute an entirely new power centre, destined to compensate the confederate republic, whose authority was to be exerted over a large, expanding territory, for the power lost through the separation of the colonies from the English crown. (Arendt 154 ) This positive freedom consisted of the legitimacy of self-governing bodies like townships, which preceded the new US federation: “What was lacking in the Old World were the townships of the colonies, and, seen with the eyes of a European observer, ‘the American Revolution broke out, and the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people came out of the townships and took possession of the state’. (Arendt 166) We can therefore see that political freedom is a kind of political haggling between different parties. And logically it follows from this that mutual agreements are a natural extension of such haggling: “The grammar of action: that action is the only human faculty that demands a plurality of men; and the syntax of power: that power is the only human attribute which applies solely to the worldly in-between space by which men are mutually related, combine in the act of foundation by virtue of the making and the keeping of promises, which, in the realm of politics, may well be the highest human faculty.” (Arendt 175)
Arendt’s sense of political freedom becomes more apparent when we understand her criticism of representation, and its converse direct democracy. First we can note her avowed approval of the US revolutionary political bodies which equalized and radicalized political speech so that any citizen could be involved: “The failure of the founders to incorporate the township and the town-hall meeting into the Constitution, or rather their failure to find ways and means to transform them under radic- ally changed circumstances, was understandable enough.” (Arendt 236) . Arendt admires the township and town-hall as the true teleological structure of the revolutionary spirit, the drive for radical equality within the realm of political speech. As a commentator has noted: “To be free, for Arendt, is to exercise the capacity for action. Freedom is thus the freedom to take part in politics, the freedom to fashion, in concert with your fellow citizens, the world you live in, the freedom to co-determine the very foundation of your existence.” (Totshnig 269). Only political bodies which would allow all people to be free to be participators within politics, such as the American town-hall, would satisfy Arendt’s utopic vision of perfect political freedom for all. Whether the historical town-hall achieved Arendt’s vision is something arguable and controversial, but beyond the scope of this paper.
Political freedom for Arendt concerns the practice of politics, and it is towards that end that revolutionary or non-revolutionary governments should proceed. The United States constitution in its dual ability to restrict the reins of an overwhelming government, and to promote the practice of politics through a representative government approximates but falls short of her ideal state of political freedom. Representation is an irreconcilable contradiction for her political theory of freedom. If the people are to be truly free they cannot, definitionally, have representatives, or else they fail to actualize their fundamental capabilities as zoon politikon. It is for this reason that Arendt points to the ephemeral town-halls of America and societe-populares of France as the truest expression of revolution, as the revelation of political freedom in its purest form.
While trying to avoid any absolutes, Arendt absolutizes a form of political relativism — the notion that there are not any absolutes, becomes an absolute in itself. Political argument, speech, mutual compacts and consensual agreements fill the void of her so-called missing absolute. I will give in full her account, which might more accurately be described as an apotheosis of the civil covenant and mutual compact, to elaborate how her political relativism became an absolute:
“No doubt, there are many ways to read the historical configuration in which the troublesome problem of an absolute made its appearance. With respect to the Old World, we mentioned the continuity of a tradition which seems to lead us straight back to the last centuries of the Roman Empire and the first centuries of Christianity, when, after the ‘Word became flesh’, the incarnation of a ‘divine absolute on earth was first represented by the vicars of Christ himself, by bishop and pope, who were succeeded by kings who claimed rulership by virtue of divine rights until, eventually, absolute monarchy was followed by the no less absolute sovereignty of the nation. From the weight and burden of this tradition the settlers of the New World had escaped, not when they crossed the Atlantic but when, under the pressure of circumstances — in fear of the new continent’s uncharted wilderness and frightened by the chartless darkness of the human heart they ‘had consummated themselves mto ‘civil bodies politic’. mutually bound themselves into an enterprise for which no other bond existed, and thus made a new beginning in the very midst of the history of Western mankind.” (italics own) (Arendt 194)
We move now from the conception of freedom to the struggle to realize that freedom in actuality: revolution. We must now explore freedom as expressed through revolution, and to do so we must investigate the thoroughness of Arendt’s claims between the distinction between the political and the social, and the appropriateness (or inappropriateness) of violence within politics.
Hannah Arendt and the successful “Political” American Revolution
One central thesis which comes out again and again in Hannah Arendt’s writings, is the notion of the separation between the ‘political’ and the ‘social’. Arguably the essential difference for Arendt lies between the ‘social’ French Revolution, i.e. the Revolution plagued by the ‘social question’, that amorphous, disruptive element of the hungry poor driven by a kind of biological “necessity”; and the ‘political’ American Revolution, where the “ thoughtful and erudite political theories of the Founding Fathers” (Arendt 24) set the groundwork for a new constitutional order which preserved political freedom. Since the political-social division underlines Arendts analysis of revolutions and their normative potential, I will be examining these two Arendtian concepts throughout this chapter.
Arendt lauds the American Revolution generally in her essay, emphasizing the Founding Fathers insistence on “public happiness” (Arendt 138), or the desire for prestigious men to participate and engage within the politics of their time, as well as its abolishment of the ‘social question’ (Arendt 59), or the existence of poverty before the revolution even started. The American Revolution fits Arendt’s sensibilities around the concept of the “political.”
On the other hand, she castigates the French (and Russian) Revolution for its bloody descent into Robespierrean (and Bolshevik) tyranny which Arendt attributes to the existence of the social question; the bursting onto the scene of the hungry, impoverished masses. The French and Russian, and other, revolutions bring out the social question, and conflict with the political aim of the revolution which should be freedom according to Arendt.
Arendt labels both revolutions, and all revolutions failures because they fail “ to create permanent and free elementary public realms with full access for every citizen of the country.”(Salikov & Zhavoronkov 516 ) In her typical erudition, Arendt cites various examples from the American town hall council, the sociétés populaires of the French Revolution, to the Russian worker councils of 1905 and soviets of 1917 to show the incarnations of a form of direct participatory democracy Arendt desires as the utopian model of politics. (Arendt 240)
I will critique Hannah Arendt’s assertion of the partial success of the American revolution. This is essentially a critique of her categorization of the ‘political’. We may justly ask if the revolution achieved the aims of political freedom. On this note, even Arendt concedes the American Revolution is a failure as mentioned before. I would, however, like to stress the historical aspects of US government which seriously weakens the ‘political’ nature of the new Constitutional regime in 1789. It is quite clear that the new US revolutionary government was both non-inclusive and non-representative, certainly from its inception after the 1787 Union Constitution. This is a crucial fact because Arendt’s conception of the distinction between the political and violent breaks down without the consent of the governed, that politicians may only use power where it is legitimate, otherwise it is violent
Arendt’s metaphysical idealism, by which I mean to say her conception of the ultimate ends of life, concerns itself with the inherent goodness of political speech and then the resultant political action — yet both this speech and action were ultimately ‘exclusified’ by the American Revolution, which empowered a select group of elites to take the representative space of Congress, denying the vast majority of Americans from meaningfully engaging in political thought, action and deed. Moreover, it is commonly known that the US franchise was restricted to white, property-owning males over the age of 21 — meaning that very few people actually voted for the new revolutionary government of George Washington. While voting is not the sine non qua of political rights, it is still certainly damning that this political right, so esteemed by proponents of liberal democracy like Arendt, was conspicuously absent within the revolutionary framework, suggesting that political freedom did not change much for a vast majority of Americans after the revolutionary war and the founding of the Constitution. Blacks, Native-Americans, and Women, among many other smaller groups, were not even allowed to participate in the political processes born of this great revolution. This poses a huge analytical problem for Arendt since her telos for revolution, or for politics, is precisely the praxis of the political arena, something from which the vast majority of American citizens were excluded. In fact, Arendt states that “political freedom, generally speaking, means the right ‘to be a participator in government’ or it means nothing.” (Arendt 218) This political freedom is conspicuously absent from the American republic’s beginning, although one may say that it exists in potentiality through a republican constitution. Arendt is at pains to stress the momentous “revolutionary” import of the American Revolution, which as I have shown previously is fictional:”Less spectacular perhaps, but certainly no less real, are the consequences of the American counterpart to·the world’s ignorance, her own failure to remember that a revolution gave birth to the United States and that the republic was brought into existence by no. ‘historical necessity’ and no organic development, but by a deliberate act: the foundation of freedom.” (Arendt 216)
In actuality, the American revolution achieved little in the realm of progressive politics, i.e. it created a new form of republican government whose heirs were the revolutionaries themselves, not the people.In essence the American revolution wrenched government from an entrenched monarchy, to an entrenched property-owning white class. A demographic analysis of the Founding Fathers, those men who lead the government from its royal transition to representative democracy shows the distinctiveness between the average American colonist and the elite leaders who won the revolutionary war: “Nearly two-thirds [of the founding fathers] (64 percent) were descended from families that had been resident in the colonies before I700, and one-quarter (26 percent) came from families that arrived before 1640, in the first phase of settlement” (Brown 466).
The most numerous profession represented was lawyers, followed closely by merchants and farmer-traders (Brown 466). This was not an uprising of peasants, or the oppressed but rather local American elites whose prestige, self-governance, and enterprise had been threatened by the British. When these propertied men felt their self-control threatened by British taxes and legislation, they took up arms to secure their own bourgeois freedom.
Moreover it becomes apparent that the social question only disappears from the US because of the relegation of the black slave class to the “other”. In fact, the Founding Fathers politicking hardly affected the black class; black slaves much preferred to fight on the side of the British and that way gain their freedom. Discussing the change of historiography taking place around black history, Gary Nash elaborates: “ students will readily understand why ten to twenty times as many slaves (along with some free blacks) fought with the British as with the American patriots.” (Nash 12) The social question in the US was politically solved by enslaving its black population and deeming this subset as not worthy of political rights to begin with.
Lastly, on the converse, the French Revolution dealt with far more complex and bloody issues such as the dethroning of an ancient king, the liberation of peasants, or the oppressed, the dispossession of a corrupt and hegemonic Catholic Church, the warding off of monarchical Continental armies. The French Revolution ultimately had to deal with a longer, entrenched history.
The Social Question and Violence
The next part of this chapter will focus on the ideal categories of the ‘political’ and the ‘social’ and whether it makes sense theoretically to differentiate these two especially with regards to the use of violence within either the political or social. A correct understanding of these two interdependent concepts is crucial for the correct comprehension of their role in freedom. In other words, does violence ,which, according to Arendt, arises when the social impinges on the political, contribute to or detract from freedom?
Hannah Arendt demarcates two independent spheres of thought and action, that of the social and of the political. It is in the former which seeks to change the entire structure of society while the latter is to demarcate a space where speech and action, the sine qua non of Arendtian politics, can transpire. Florian Grosser in his eminently readable and brilliant piece “In Search of the Good Revolution: Arendt on Violence and the Social Question” makes the salient point that these two fields are not independent but are interdependent. Only a narrow conception of the social, comprising such things as the economic welfare of citizens, whether citizens have food, shelter, and other economic rights, excludes itself from the political sphere. It is precisely the social, the need and desire for food, for adequate pay, for shelter, which becomes “politicizable” and enters the realm of politics where before it was merely “necessity.” (Grosser 75 ) From this perspective, the French Revolution does not miss its moment to be political, but rather is truly revolutionary in the fact that what was previously social, became political and worth fighting for and dying for.
Idealism vs History and Actuality
I am in agreement with Eric Hobsbawm that “There are doubtless readers who will find Miss Arendt’s book [On Revolution] interesting and profitable. The historical or sociological student of revolutions is unlikely to be among them.” (Hobsbawm 208) Arendt’s book sharpens her own unique, well-honed political idealism: that politics should concern speech and action, and which deliberation within a federal pyramidal structure refines. Yet it is precisely because she is trying to fit the idea of revolutions into her idea of politics that she misses the point, both with respect to the French Revolution and the American Revolution. Essentially, Hannah Arendt’s ideal form of politics is actually non-revolutionary in character, by this I mean, her politics can only exist in a state which is not tumultuous, or changing, or rapid, as most revolutions are. On both aspects of “the social question” and violence she fails to convince the reader since the social question has always been a political one precisely during a revolution, that is part and parcel of revolution is to consider the social as political (to a more extreme degree than its normal association anyways) and moreover violence a necessary part of resolving such a social question in the midst of a deeply divided and unequal society. Arendt has crafted an eminently readable and enjoyable story which has scholarly bona fides such as the etymology and usages of the word revolution, collections of quotes and sayings from contemporaneous thinkers, even literary analysis of good and evil, yet it is lacking in analytical rigor to the extent that it merely justifies her own political philosophy through history, rather than elucidating history through political philosophy.
Violence: Clean Separability between Violence and Politics
In the next half of this chapter I will broach the topic of violence and freedom. By investigating Arendt’s conception of the political, its arbitrarily-narrowed definition to speech and non-violent action, I will be in a better position to understand the intimate connection between violent political action and freedom.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to sketch a full history, and background of Hannah Arendt’s dynamic relationship to the use of violence in politics, and its either political or anti-political nature. I will, however, provide a condensed description of her work. Christopher Finlay has brilliantly laid out the four theoretical approaches to violence Arendt critiqued in her On Violence: : “first, that violence is a central part of the political, identical with or essential to power; secondly, that violence is or should be treated as valuable in and of itself; thirdly, that violence is an inescapable and persistent element of human and especially political life, rooted in or analogous to biological necessity; and, finally, that the permissibility of violence relates to its origins as distinct from its ends” (Finlay 28). One of Arendt’s conclusions is that violence “can be justifiable but it will never be legitimate.”(Arendt 52) In this we learn that Arendt views violence as an instrumental good, or a necessary evil. Arendt has various hesitations about the use of violence, such as its unreliability in achieving its ends and its “generative” nature, producing more problems than it was supposed to solve.
It is this same approach Arendt takes in “On Revolution,” categorically ruling out violence from the political sphere, but curiously acknowledging its role in liberation: “Violence, where it does occur, is the act through which powers such as those already established in America or powers that are only beginning to emerge elsewhere — like the workers’ Soviets in Russia in 1917 — defend the spaces they have opened up for non-violent, political action from the forces trying to suppress or destroy them. Violence is thus justified as the means of defence and it is instrumental in serving the preservation of solidarities created through otherwise non-violent interaction” (Finlay 37)
What we have here then is a quite obvious contradiction. On the one hand, violence is non-political because it is beyond the sphere of politics, of mutual deliberation, it is a kind of meta-politics, preserving the political sphere from folding in on itself from outside violent interference. On the other, it is political because it is being used politically, as a means to further “normal” politics. The answer to this contradiction is simply a reframing of the concept of politics — it is Arendt’s overly idealistic utilization of the Greek polis as the realm of speech and action, and nothing more, which produces this inaccurate delineation between violence and politics. Simply put: If violence preserves politics, why is violence not part of politics?
It is in the nature of Hannah Arendt’s conception of politics (speech, thought, action, novelty) which excludes violence: “Where violence rules absolutely, as for instance in the concentration camps of totalitarian regimes; not only the laws — les lois se taisent, as the French Revolution phrased it — but everything and everybody must fall silent. It is because of this silence that violence is a marginal phenomenon in the political realm” (Arendt 18). Note in the preceding passage the reliance on extreme examples of violence (concentration camps) for a justification against the prevalence of any violence within politics. It is a reductio ad absurdum that where ceaseless, overwhelming violence is used, speech and debate is nullified. But this, as I will show, ignores the violence embedded within the very nature of action itself
If politics is defined as the use of reason, of logical speech to persuade, dissuade, lead, or defeat, then its antithesis, from this perspective, is violence. Violence is the antithesis of reason, supposedly because it ends discussion, it ends debate, and brings the conversation and dialogue to an abrupt end, as the abruptness of violence shatters the necessary peace and mutual harmony needed for bona fide communication. But is Hannah Arendt’s notion of politics as exclusively reasoned arguments justified both internally and externally? By internally I mean is it consistent with the definition of politics as speech to exclude violence, and by externally I mean that if we look beyond the definition can we imagine a space for violence within the political sphere.
First the internal argument. I think it is inconsistent to hold a prohibition against violence, even given Hannah Arendt’s notion of politics as speech. Consider the example of a recalcitrant, truant Senator who refuses to engage with a certain debate where he is required to be. The US political system acknowledges the right of the Sergeant-at-Arms to dispatch the constitutional police to fetch a recalcitrant senator if the requisite votes are collected. That is, a deliberative body such as the Senate recognizes the right to coerce, or to use violence, in order to allow for the furthering of political freedom; that is violence is itself a (sometimes) necessary precondition; an accepted form of politics. And this violence is legitimate, not just justified. It is good and just that such a man be coerced to do his duty. Moreover, there is the violence of the better-argument. An orator who is more skilled, more persuasive, in other words, a better politician, does violence to his opponents precisely because he ends the debate in his favor.
Next the external argument: violence is as much part of politics as speech is. Politics concerns the affairs of men and women, in whatever form it takes both theoretically and practically. To want to eliminate violence is an admirable idealism, stemming from the deepest source of compassionate morality. Yet it is strictly anti-political — man needs violence as his tool to achieve his goals, to achieve goals. Since men and women want to change the world, want to work with it as coextensive to their bodies, force is necessary.
The co-existence of action and violence: political action=violence
Not only do I think the elimination of violence from the concept of politics folly, I think it the ultimate distraction. In this paragraph I will try to deduce the co-existence of political action and violence — that violence is embedded within a large scope of politics. We will go from a simple observation about action. All action is the result of a selection of one unique option between two mutually exclusive options. I can choose to eat, or to sleep. I can choose to walk, or to drive. I can choose Jane as my wife, or I can choose Mary. There exists no simpler, and therefore truer way of expressing an option. My claim is that the choice of one option does violence in and of itself, and doubly to the excluded other option. Every choice has a metaphysical weightiness to it: it declares this, and not that. In choosing, in making a choice, a violent action is done because that choice has changed the world in a positive and negative sense simultaneously — positively something has come about, negatively something has not come about.
In a world of competing wills, in a world of politics in other words, there is violence done from one will, or many, against another or many others. Therefore we now have a definition of violence. Violence is the stifling of a will, either singular or plural, by another either singular or plural will. The nature of the world, the nature of political animals is to fight over the polis, to fight for their right to exist and prosper, and do better than one another. To these ends, one must assert their will against their neighbour. Everything is permitted, that is politics concerns the entire gamut of thinkable, realizable action, although not all political action is just, admirable, or justified. That is we need a separation between our normative desire for civility and discourse (put Arendt in this category) and the actuality of available political options.
Most other political thinkers use the term ‘violence’ loaded with normative disdain, that is their conception of violence conforms to what they disapprove of within the political realm. The way I use it is broad and non-selective, by which I mean to say that all the various shades of violence, or force, are encompassed under my definition without recourse to my own politics. Under my definition there is no need, nor possibility, of taking the moral high ground because violence is to be located within every partisan group and simply the nature of politics. It is foolish to call certain actions violent as a matter of disdain when so many accepted actions are in their nature violent. For example a Marxist may call the domination of the capitalist over his worker as a violent relationship, but if he looked in his backyard he would notice that he is doing violence to the capitalist, undermining his livelihood and desired way of living.
This is not to espouse a fetishistic account of violence, one that glorifies and praises violence wholeheartedly, on the contrary, it is done to wake us up to the stark reality that much if not all of our own political actions are violent and hence questionable.
Let us look at an example of how political action is naturally violent. I am an anti-Federalist in the American Revolution. I eschew clear manifested violence for argument, and argue vociferously for the king. I proclaim to all that I will never use violence because only reason is justified, (and political). Yet the problem here is that the man in question is being violent — he is violent in the double sense that he is 1. Supporting a regime which is willing to use direct manifested violence to defend itself against revolutionaries (cf. Boston Massacre) and 2. In that he is not supporting the revolutionaries in their struggle for independence, and thereby condemning the revolutionaries to a higher chance of death and defeat. Therefore to take a political stance is to take up the cause of violence.
There are admittedly degrees and different kinds of violence, (physical, psychological, symbolic) and the choice to walk to work is conceptually distinct from the bludgeoning of someone over the head. But it must be noted that this distinction becomes blurry in the realm of politics, and especially revolutionary politics. In the first instance the choice to cater towards a select group of citizens over the rest is a form of violence in that that politicking can determine the development of society, whether this area will have a hospital, or that area a landfill. It takes no further stretch of the imagination to think of the decisions concerning war and their violence.
It is only a truism that speech and actual manifested violence cannot co-exist, I cannot pontificate to the crowd if I am shot (although Teddy Roosevelt could pontificate after being shot). This is a trite biological observation. It ignores the scope of politics which rightfully deals with violence. As much as we would like the perfect Greek polis where men and women could legislate in bliss among the angels, where all violence were eliminated from the polis, and only rationality prevailed, it ignores the partially “real” world of Machiavellian politics in which we live. To kill your political enemies is as much a declaration of logos than not to. This is not to say realism is truth, or even desirable, but that it is tactically available to all political parties and hence it is something that needs to be reckoned with.
Even in the instance of non-choice, standing on the sidelines as it were, the non-choice is a definite choice which has consequences for the political sphere — apathy, or willful disregard are powerful political statements, and are therefore contributory to violence within a society.
Every choice which affects men and women is political, and is therefore violent. It will either promote or impede, create or destroy, contribute or detract from, and it will by its nature affect different groups of people differently. To think that speech is the crux of politics is to ignore history, and the praxis of politics — speech has and always will be only an instrument; a useful instrument for physical creatures who have developed sophisticated ways of interacting, communicating and co-operating. We may even do a backwards deduction that if all action is violent, because it naturally favors one option and destroys another, then speech is merely the precursor to violence.
A critic of mine could point out that I have stretched beyond recognition the use of the term “violent” since now all action incorporates violence. I would merely suggest that the critic think more deeply about the nature of the human condition, where one has to make a definite choice at any given point, a choice which irrevocably changes the world because you have impacted the nature of the world — I have drunk this water, so that a thirsty Amazonian tribesman will not drink this water. I have eaten this chicken so that a famished child in inner-city Detroit may not. I have, as a Bolshevik, joined the communist cause and condemned to death the kulaks, in my belief that the working class may be free. Every choice is violent because every choice is absolute in its all-encompassing nature, and its destruction of the potential “other” choice.
I do not think we lose anything meaningful if we consider violence to be coeval with politics; I think we fully understand the high-stakes nature of the political game, of life itself; political choices are violent because they will force a will, whether that will is singular (tyrant), collaborative and deliberative or the volonte generale, is a different matter. But nonetheless, one definite view of reality is being implemented when a political choice is made, and this does violence in and of itself, and to the other political possibilities.
Revolution, Freedom and Violence
While I have deduced a formulation that equates action with violence, that is not to exclude the reality of degrees of violence. The excesses of the French Revolution are rightfully deplorable; tens of thousands of people guillotined over the course of nine months during the Robespierrean Reign of Terror. ( One can only imagine the fear and paralysis which must have gripped the once-proud French Revolutionaries. We can ground such violence in the previous formulation, that excessive violence is the result of excessive political action. It is only because the French Revolution sought to change fundamentally the nature of French, even human, politics that massive violence came about. And this brings us to a more fundamental understanding of why even Hannah Arendt acknowledged that revolution is permanently associated with the French one and not the American: a revolution is only revolutionary when excessive action, aimed at a complete transformation of society occurs. Violence is built into the concept of revolution.
French Revolution: Dealing with Entrenchedness
Now we may come to a true understanding between the difference between the French and American Revolution. It must be said that to the degree a society has entrenched actors, the more violent action will be if it so seeks to correct such entrenchedness. It is no coincidence that Rousseau’s metaphysical concept of original natal freedom, “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains,” (Rousseau 1) lent itself eventually to radical skepticism of entrenched actors (the propertied, the meritocratic, the nobility, the monarchy etc). Revolutionary action (read violence) seeks doubly to displace the entrenched and to incorporate the marginalized. Over the course of human history some people will rise through the ranks of society, through the accumulation of private property (which may include slaves) and titles and honors (whose apex in France was achieved by Hugh Capet, all the way back in 987AD), while others will slip into the opposite of destitution, lacking access to property (perhaps even becoming property themselves in the case of slavery and feudalism) and earning the contempt of the higher classes. This division we may say is partly natural, partly artificial, creating an inextricable dialectic between artifice and nature. From the absolute end of nature, we may say that some people are doomed by their bio-chemical composition to be inferiors just as some people are blessed to be philosopher-kings and queens (insert your desired apex human disposition). Similarly, from the absolute end of artifice, a society may be constructed to suit the strong (read monarchy, hereditary aristocracy, representative government) or conversely the weak (communism, socialism, participatory democracy). The principle revolutionaries discovered, as groundbreaking as Galileo’s contemplation of the skies, was this exact dialectic, that man may change himself and others through action — the supremacy of artifice, of human action, over nature. Another way of saying this is that the Platonic Forms, (the eternal ideas supposedly in the realm of the divine which Plato introduced in his Republic) those unchanging eternal concepts, are not in fact eternal with respect to man. Man is in a sense an open mathematical set. His nature eternally changing, malleable infinitely This is as much to say that man creates himself (and is created by others simultaneously), and that what is natural is merely the accumulation of historical processes. In essence, nature was a misnomer, a misconception, an insight at the appearance of things, but not the true changing essence (this paradox is culmination of Aristotle’s philosophy, which superseded his master Plato’s theories of the Forms).
With this background of revolutionary praxis, it becomes apparent why true revolutions are inherently violent. Entrenched actors, Louis XVI, the French Nobility, in a phrase, the ancien regime, and dispossessed actors, the French peasants, the Sans-Culottes were the result of a millennium-year-old artificial historical process. If man may make history, he may unmake it.The French Revolutionaries were confronting this thousand year history, this thousand-year protection of self-interest. They chose to confront, and dethrone, a divine monarch; they chose to confront and dispossess the Catholic Church, which owned a substantial amount of French lands. And in doing so they showed that what was thought divine, untouchable, sacrosanct, was merely the weighty detritus of history.
But it must be stressed that such a disruption, such a deviation from the “natural” unfolding of history, will be violent to the extreme, precisely because it seeks to wrench control of the historical process, and displace the beneficiaries of the previous historical process.
It has been shown that revolution, in its proper sense, is always violent because it consciously disrupts the historical process, substituting the beneficiaries of the pre-revolutionary historical process for the dispossessed. The American Revolution is less deserving of the term Revolution because it continued, and even magnified, the pre-revolutionary historical process. The actors who were benefiting from the historical process merely continued to elevate themselves higher in the social and political sphere.
In this chapter, I have critiqued Hannah Arendt’s conception of freedom and its supposed separability of the ‘political’ and the ‘social’. I have also underscored a theory of violence which undercuts her notion of pure, detached political freedom and provided a clear contrast between the French and American revolution according to a theory of entrenchedness. In the next chapter I will analyze in more depth theories of violence and its justification.
Chapter 3 Violence and its Justifications
In this chapter, I would like to present theories of violence which stands against the conceptions of freedom of Arendt and Berlin. Both those thinkers attempt to elide violence from freedom. I will put forward a theory which assimilates and accepts violence as a crucial component and part of freedom. In the last chapter I critiqued Arendt’s exclusion of violence from freedom; now I intend to assert the positive aspect of this argument.
So far we have seen how a conception of freedom, in either the positive or negative sense, will dictate the outlines of the ideality of one’s revolution. Berlin, a proponent of negative freedom, eschewed all revolutions as improper idealism originating in the dominating impulse of positive freedom. Arendt, a mixed proponent of both the negative restrictions towards higher power and the positive embrace of political praxis, viewed Revolution ambivalently — a doomed enterprise where radical democratic political praxis morphs into centralization.
But we have yet to see theories of revolution and freedom which incorporate violence within their very foundation. But before we dive into various theories and kinds of violence, I will provide a definition of violence. This is always a tricky business, and it will be clear from the beginning where I stand with relation to violence in what I choose to include or exclude from my definition. I believe in the more expansive use of the word ‘violence’ than its commonsense, intuitive definition as mere direct bodily harm. I define violence in line with Johan Galtung, that “violence is present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations.” (Galtung 168) As Galtung notes this places violence as the differentiator between “potential realization” and “actual realization.” I believe this definition maps better the kinds of acts we consider to be wrong, and morally suspect, and the direct result of either negligent or malicious behaviour. This definition is also acceptable for the fact that it is inclusive of both agent-willed violence and non-agent (structural) willed violence. When proponents of a narrow definition of violence define the concept, they purposefully exclude structural forces which commit perhaps the most violent acts, and thereby detract from a more meaningful and instructive approach to the problem of unfreedom within societies. Another reason for this definition of violence, not as action per se, but influence, is that it incorporates the symbolic dimensions of violence which are just as tangible as physical violence. Violence as influence means that we can conceptualize and critique actions which, though not resulting in a physical violation of one’s body, still result in a complex psychical-psychological reaction and oppression.
Narrow proponents of violence, who confine the meaning to the physical violation of the body by another discreet actor, ignore the emergent effects of group action. When a body of laws are passed that are oppressive to a certain class of people, there can be no violence from the perspective of the narrow proponent. But when we consider concrete cases, for example the passing of race-related laws by the apartheid South African government where laws were passed to classify individuals according to race, then uproot, dislocate and essentially banish certain race-groups to wastelands, not to mention creating and using the entire police and military apparatus to accomplish these goals while fending off any opposition with violence, then it becomes clear as day that there can be violence against individuals even though no one actor, but a system is responsible.
Let us begin with a theory of violence proposed by Bernhard Waldenfels. Waldenfels offers a theory that violence can be justified on both “intra-ordinal” and “interordinal” grounds (Waldenfels 101). He distinguishes two different kinds of violence, “one that grows out of the grounds of an existing order” and one “in favor of or against growing orders”(Waldenfels 101) . The first kind of violence is defensive: it seeks to justify the current order against imposition, and applies its laws to justify itself. The second order seeks to overthrow or replace the current order. Waldenfels notes that these two types of violence always coexist within a given order, that is there is much symbolic interpretation involved whether certain acts are intra-ordinal or inter-ordinal. To use Waldenfels example, a bank robbery can be interpreted as either a criminal act (i.e. intra-ordinal violence) or a revolutionary act (inter-ordinal violence) depending on the motives, and indeed propaganda of either the state or the actors involved themselves. (Waldenfels 102) The result of such an unstable force within the polity is that there needs to be a “second-degree legitimation” which appraises the current order as being morally higher or more worthy: “Violence appears as part or phase of a highest good justified in and by itself, for example as cosmic order, as plan of salvation, as reign of freedom, as classless society or simply as creative and destructive forces of life.” (Waldenfels 103) The conclusion Waldenfels comes to is that violence is an open question, without sufficient reasons to definitively decide a set order over another. There is an endless process of justification, which is always being undermined at any moment because of the nature of systems where some will be violated and others not. Violence then is an integral part of politics as such, as much as the pacificists within us wish it were not.
The other thing to note about Waldenfels’ theories about violence is his separation of the term ‘violence’ from ‘violent’, preferring the latter adjective over the former noun(Waldenfels 107). In this way Waldenfels is drawing our attention to the fact that violence does not exist ‘out there’ but rather immanent within processes like the administration of the state and executing the law etc.
Similarly Barrington Moore Jr. makes powerful arguments for the contributory nature of violence towards freedom. He first notes that we must distinguish between the violence of the oppressed and of the oppressor — that the former often contributes to freedom: “Part of what is radically wrong may be the prevailing conception of violence. It fails to draw the crucial moral and political distinctions between the violence of the oppressors and those who resist oppression.” (Barrington Moore, Jr 3 ) There are quite a few historical instances Barrington Moore Jr. provides for his contention that violence can be contributory to freedom. The first is the eradication of plantation slavery. The American civil war definitively ended the institution of plantation slavery through arms and legal decree. Without this America would have “ been in the position of some modernizing countries today: with a latifundia economy over huge areas, a powerful and anti-democratic landed aristocracy, a dependent commercial and industrial class unwilling and unable to push forward toward political democracy.” (Barrington Moore, Jr 4)
Violence in a sense serves to “dramatize issues”(Barrington Moore Jr. 4) — this is the unique relationship between the radical left and the moderates, that the former create havoc and violence and the latter make concessions, “salvag[ing] the main elements in their power and get[ting] the credit for statesmanship…”(Barrington Moore, Jr 4) Indeed, it is only because there are angry, violent men and women who are willing to do the “dirty work” that those powers that be are willing to concede and yield to a greater degree of freedom for people. The best example for this is the issue of the black ghettoes of America in the 1960s, and how the race riots there, violent as they were, helped to spur on the movement for reform. Violence in this sense operates to problematize and destabilize a given order. If the dominant elements of society are to avoid larger scale conflicts, they have to concede the claims of the violent parties. In essence violence ties together the dominant actors of society with the lower classes, or oppressed classes by making the former reliant on the latter for compliance.
On the whole, Barrington Moore Jr. is sympathetic towards radical leftism and its adherents, suggesting that the radical left plays an important role in shaping governmental policy, especially around issues of large social import. This is derived from historical observation: “To begin with a pessimistic observation, it is untrue that violence settles nothing. It would be closer to the mark to assert that violence has settled all historical issues so far, and most of them in the wrong way.”(Barrington Moore, Jr 11) He however is not a proponent of a universalistic and all-encompassing legitimation of violence but rather sees its limited role in achieving political goals and ambitions.
If we are to look for fundamental reasons for the equation of violence with freedom, at least where it does coincide, since it can be conceded they are not absolutely connected but often are at odds, we shall discover it within the non-equal position different political actors find themselves within the social and power hierarchy. This is partly the violence of the oppressed that Barrington Moore Jr. wrote about — that being thrust onto the stage of social and political life, men and women find themselves in very unequal positions. So much so that they might find their lives violated . This can happen as a result of economic conditions i.e. Oikos in Ancient Greece, slavery within the early American republic, serfdom within Russia before the 19th century, and so on and so forth. It may happen for social/racial reasons: Apartheid South Africa, French Algeria, American slavery (whose causes were part economic part social/racial) etc. But nonetheless, it is eminently possible, and widely historically recorded, that a given political/social order can disadvantage, disown and disconnect a group of people from the underlying social contract, leaving them at the violent whim of the state. For people who find themselves within this position, who find themselves within a political cage, the only resort is to violence. Violence allows the voice of the oppressed to speak out, above the voice of the powerful.
In other words we arrive at something Lewis A. Coser wrote about in his “Some Social Functions of Violence,” namely the use of “violence as achievement.” (Coser 10) As Coser writes succinctly “Certain categories of individuals are so located in the social structure that they are barred from legitimate access to the ladder of achievement…” (Coser 10). Coser analyzes Richard A. Cloward’s and Lloyd E. Ohlin’s academic piece (Delinquency and Opportunity) on delinquent adolescents as an example of where violence becomes an equalizer “in the wilderness of cities.” (Cloward and Ohlin 175) The case, however, can be generalized to include both legitimate and illegitimate paths to socioeconomic achievement, that is violence is a last recourse to prove oneself within the social structure. Moreover, this applies as well to revolutionary violence : “Participation in such violence offers opportunity to the oppressed and downtrodden for affirming identity and for claiming full manhood hitherto denied to them by the powers that be” (Coser 11). Violence is an active force for the liberation of the individual since he he is reclaiming his dignity and asserting his will against an oppressor.
While Hannah Arednt asserted that political freedom lay in the peaceful realm of polis, she ignored the fact that there are individuals trapped within Oikos, the economic slavery of the Greek city-state. Coser makes the point that “Participation in revolutionary violence offers the chance for the first act of participation in the polity, for entry into the world of active citizenship.” (Coser 11) What Arendt elides is the fact that not everyone has access to political freedom in the first place; some privileged few are born into polis and the rest have to resort to violence for their entrance to polis.
Violence also serves as a “danger signal” to the powers that be concerning the unfreedom and constraint of certain members of society. (Coser 12) This is peculiar to violence as opposed to mere political speech because “this signal is so drastic, so extremely loud that it cannot fail to be perceived by men in power and authority otherwise not noted for peculiar sensitivity to social ills” (Coser 13) Normal political speech is soft, unthreatening, mediated, whereas violence is loud, threatening and immediate. Even such explosive speakers such as Martin Luther King Jr. cannot on average muster the same immediate response of the public as an act of violence can. As an example of the effectiveness of violence, Coser cites the violent historical Chartist movement which “had a direct impact by leading to a series of reform measures alleviating the conditions against which it had reacted.” (Coser 14) Similarly, “ legislative remedies, from factory legislation to the successive widening of the franchise and the attendant granting of other citizenship rights to members of the lower classes, came, at least in part, in response to the widespread disorders and violent outbreaks that marked the British social scene for over half a century.” (Coser 14)
The last function of violence Coser mentions is “violence as a catalyst” (Coser 15) although I think it would be better labeled violence as ‘self-inflicted deconstruction’ What do I mean by self-inflicted deconstruction? I mean to say that violence contains within itself the power to deconstruct its own aims and goals and ‘backfire’ as it were. Because unjustified violence causes moral disgust and indignation, when it is used in a way that is unjustified, at least in the eyes of a sufficient number of observers, then the original aims and goals of the authorities become perverted and inverted. For example violence committed against the black civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s. While undoubtedly some of this violence was extralegal and beyond the justified scope of the law, violence as self-inflicted deconstruction still occurs within normal legalized forms of violence such as crowd control measures and so on. If the public or a sufficient number of members of the public perceive any violence, justified or not, to be used against a specific class of people, instead of achieving the original aims of maintaining public order and safety, the authorities unwittingly add to the legitimacy of the cause of the oppressed. That is, the violence of the oppressor is as contributory to freedom (in a perverse negative way) to the retributive violence of the oppressed.
We will now move on to look at perhaps the most eloquent, and hence troublesome for most people, defender of the liberatory qualities of violence: Frantz Fanon. In his work Black Skin White Masks Fanon introduces a concept of a kind of releasing of pent-up psychic energy through violence, which is described in the following way:‘[within] every society, in every collectivity, exists — must exist — a channel, an outlet through which the forces accumulated in the forms of aggression can be released’ (Fanon 145) It is easy to note the psychological viewpoint that Fanon adopts, suggesting a psychopathological existence of this pent-up energy which must find its outlet somehow. Violence is the solution to the collective catharsis: “The violence is the intervening event which is able to remove their feelings of self-loathing which have been internalised after constant repetition from the colonial power. The colonial subject is also able to restore their self-esteem and control over their political life.” (Pallas 1). Violence becomes a way of releasing all the angers, frustrations and disappointments of the oppressed. Violence, not only releases energy, it also restores humanity from a state of being inhuman, or lesser, i.e. it is a means of reattaining dignity and self-worth after the humiliation of quasi-slavery:
Thus the native discovers that his life, his breath, his beating heart are the same as those of the settler. He finds out that the settler’s skin is not of any more value than a native’s skin; and it must be said that this discovery shakes the world in a very necessary manner…for if, in fact, my life is worth as much as the settler’s, his glance no longer shrivels me up nor freezes me, and his voice no longer turns me into stone” ( Fanon 45).
Now we see a strongly positive freedom associated with violence: an oppressed class can use violence to restore their sense of self-worth and dignity and prove to themselves that they are still human. It should be noted, however, that such a type of freedom from violence in this sense is more limited and historically contingent than other forms of freedom precisely because it requires there to be a subjugated lower class, something which is not necessarily always present and not to the same degree as in some societies.
Fanon and Arendt are directly at loggerheads with each other. Fanon proudly claims violence as a means to political liberation while Arendt describes violence as inherently unpredictable and thoroughly anti-political. This, it must be said, come down to the universal/perspectival difference between the two thinkers. For Arendt, polis already exists. For Fanon he has been excluded from polis and must fight for his right to be an equal citizen in the state which has discriminated and oppressed him.
I hope it has been sufficiently shown that there are extreme differences in opinion between those theorists who would eliminate violence from their conception of freedom (Berlin, Arendt) and those who consider it within the scope of their conception of freedom. (Waldenfels, Barrington Moore Jr., Coser, Fanon). We must now analyse and ask why is it the case that these two different schools of thought has arisen. There will be many reasons for these differences, stemming from the axiomatic bases of these thinker’s core philosophies. On the one hand, the political theorizing of Arendt is non-perspectival, that is it takes political freedom from the position of some uniquely good objective position. Arendt sees her theories as applying ‘universally’ to mankind — political freedom can only mean political participation within the polis because this must, of necessity, be the end-state and end-goal of all politics. The other camp of thinkers, almost all of them, view humanity as divided into classes, distinct groups, with their own motivations, goals, ambitions and inhibitions. If all people were equal, if all people were set on the same footing within a society, then perhaps yes polis would be the desired end state of humanity. But in the absence of this uniquely good objective position, perspective matters. Freedom cannot be the same for everyone since not all are equally free or unfree, but set against an infinite continuum. And some groups of people are more closely unequal, or unfree, and hence can aspire collectively to rid themselves of their yoke through force.
A second difference between the camp of anti-violence and the camp who incorporate violence is their approach to historical development, or historicization. Arendt has to sidestep the problem of the ‘foundation’,expressing it as something necessary but extrinsic to the realm of politics — “In so far as violence plays a predominant role in wars and revolutions, both occur outside the political realm, strictly speaking, in spite of their enormous role in recorded history.” (Arendt 19). This is an unjustified move and she contradicts herself by reminding us of the importance within every revolution, and every founding moment: “The relevance of the problem of beginning to the phenomenon of revolution is obvious. That such a beginning must be inti- mately connected with violence seems to be vouched for by the legendary beginnings of our history as both biblical and classical antiquity report it: Cain slew Abel, and Romulus slew Remus; violence was the beginning and, by the same token, no begin~ ning could be made without using violence, without violating. (Arendt 20 ). So Arendt has sidestepped the violence necessary for revolutions precisely because her philosophy is not historicist, does not account for the fact that what was once yesterday’s “pre-political” realm becomes tomorrow’s “political” realm. On the contrary, the theorists of the violence camp recognize that revolutions and violence are the result of processes occurring over time, that today’s law and order was founded on yesterday’s extralegal violence.
What we may say about violence as freedom is that it is the result of living in an imperfect world. It is only because one finds themselves oppressed, subjugated or in the class of the downtrodden, that violence becomes the primary means with which to strike back and assert one’s right to live a dignified life. Fanon’s advocacy of violence stems not from violence per se, but from the original violence colonialism started — “[d]ecolonization is the meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature…[t]heir first encounter was marked by violence and their existence together — that is to say the exploitation of the native by the settler — was carried on by dint of a great array of bayonets and cannons ( Fanon 36).” Violence in this sense is a reflection, or rather a refraction of prior violence. Oppressive violence in the past can be remedied through the violence of the oppressed in the present and future. This is not to say, however, that violence is per se the only way. Nonviolent strategies do exist for combating oppression, such as that practiced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. But it is always a strategic calculus as to whether violence or nonviolence should be used.
It is only too true, however, that the violence of the oppressed can too easily turn into the violence of the oppressor — that the oppressed and the oppressor merely change places. And it is for this reason that Fanon even cautioned against the reckless use of violence: “The militant who faces the colonialist war machine with the bare minimum of arms realizes that while he is breaking down colonial oppression he is building up yet another system of exploitation. This discovery is unpleasant, bitter, and sickening: and yet everything seemed so simple before” (Fanon 145). In other words in the pursuit of freedom, from a place of unfreedom, it is possible to impose on your enemies and oppressors the same harsh restrictions, inhibitions and violations as were imposed on you. During the biblical exodus, it must be remembered that the Israelites gained their freedom at the cost of the lives of all the firstborn of Egypt; a harsh punishment and turning the question on its head as to who oppressed whom.
Political violence then is not always emancipatory, and can easily morph into oppressive violence. This is partly what Luhmann means when he labels violence as a ‘symbiotic mechanism’, i.e. something which organizes power as a means of communication delineating the range of practicable and even thinkable alternatives. (Luhmann 147) When the ruling class has power, they can dictate the terms of society’s progression to the detriment of certain groups.
Another form of violence not mentioned previously is symbolic violence, a term coined and exposited by Pierre Bourdieu. Here it is the symbols of society which can be oppressive and degrade another’s freedom. Consider the various constituents of symbolic capital, “glory, honor, credit, reputation, fame” (Bourdieu 166), and their various incarnations and representations within society. Symbolic capital can be used for domination — “Symbolic capital enables forms of domination which may imply dependence on those who can be dominated by it, since it only exists through the esteem, recognition, belief, credit confidence of others, and can only be perpetuated so long as it succeeds in obtaining belief in its existence.” (Bourdieu 166) The oppressors’ sense of self-worth, confidence, honor, etc. relies precisely on the acceptance of such values by those who will be oppressed by the same symbols. These symbols, however, make themselves impressed onto the bodies and dispositions of members of society:: “Each agent has a practical, bodily knowledge of her present and potential position in the social space, ‘a sense of one’s place’ as Goffman puts it, converted into a sense of placement which governs her experience of the place occupied, defined absolutely and above all relationally as a rank, and the way to behave in order to keep it… and to keep within it” (Bourdieu 184). This habitus, this ‘field’ of where the influence of symbols in daily life occurs, is where the daily struggle against domination commences “It is this practical knowledge that orients interventions in the symbolic struggles of everyday life…” (Bourdieu 184).
Freedom, for Bourdieu, is a constant struggle against the symbolic violence which we encounter on a daily basis from the ocean of influences both direct and indirect embedded in the social fabric of everyday existence: “Thus, the social world is both the product and the stake of inseparably cognitive and political symbolic struggles over knowledge and recognition, in which each pursues not only the imposition of an advantageous representation of himself or herself, with the strategies of ‘presentation of self’ so admirably analysed by Goffman, but also the power to impose as legitimate the principles of construction of social reality most favourable to his or her social being (individual and collective, with, for example, struggles over the boundaries of groups) and to the accumulation of a symbolic capital of recognition.” (Bourdieu 187) It has been mentioned before in this essay, that violence is a kind of response to one’s poisition within the social and political order, a way of acting out against the dominators with force; when it comes to Bourdieu’s conception of the social sphere it is almost as if it were Hobbes’ state of nature, that “war of all against all”, except instead of the imagined political violence in a pre-political pre-state environment, symbolic violence and struggle occurs within the political realm.
We therefore see that by no means can violence and freedom be extricated; that they are inextricably intertwined in a world which produces power differentials and dominator-dominated relationships. Violence is a means of correcting and even producing freedom from where it never used to exist. It should be noted that violence is contributory both to negative and positive freedom, in the sense defined by Berlin, and in accordance with the formulation I have derived which sees the unity between these freedoms, or that negative freedom is a necessary precondition for positive freedom. Violence is contributory to negative freedom in the sense that often the exclusionary zone of non-interference of marginalized groups are impinged by the state, or malicious non-state actors, and violence serves to reclaim and reassert one’s legitimate stake to negative freedom. Consider the various secessionist movements around the world, which are prepared to take violent action to achieve their goals. It is their belief that their own governments are failing them, oppressing them, and hence it is their aim to separate and restore to themselves a full sense of sovereignty and non-interference. Violence serves as a reminder to the powers that be that they have encroached too far on the negative freedom of the citizen, or non-citizen.
Similarly, violence can be the basis of positive freedom, or as Berlin noted it “the desire to be a subject.” Frantz Fanon described the process of how the oppressed, the colonized, can win back their freedom and sense of self-worth through violent action. That is to say, the action itself, the praxis of violence can be liberating. But more so than the psychological benefits of violence, the political freedom to be won at the end of the struggle brings positive freedom in abundance to an oppressed people.
What becomes apparent the more one investigates the initial, unreflective intuition against violence is that it is founded on an enlightened desire for peace, but which refuses to contemplate how one actually establishes and maintains peace. And the more pertinent questions are ‘peace for whom?’ and ‘at whose expense?’ By examining history, and seeing the rise of certain classes over others, we may say that law and order serves the interests of select classes of people, and relegates the rest to a diminished status, physically and symbolically. How else is one to break free of the constraints of the state, and society other than by taking world-changing action, in a word violence.
There are then several different aspects to violence. The first is a perspectival approach which acknowledges the non-equal position of members of society as well as asserting that some conflicts are irresolvable through discourse. The second is inaugural violence, or the violence of the beginning necessary for law and order. The third is agency-creating violence which destabilizes the status quo so as to push people to perform certain actions either willingly or unwillingly.
Can Violence detract from Freedom?
Before now we have explored whether violence contributes and adds to freedom. It is, however, pertinent and imperative to ask whether violence detracts from freedom, as Berlin and Arendt explicitly state. We may proceed in two steps: analysing the negatives of violence itself, and the substantials of non-violence. First, violence itself is destructive of the human psyche and on whomever it is inflicted: “Exposure to violence has been linked to a number of mental health and behavioral sequelae including depression, stress, fears and worries, aggression, anxiety, low self-esteem, posttraumatic stress, and self-destructive behaviors.” (Song, Singer & Anglin 532) Violence destroys one’s ability to function normally or free from fear. Moreover, violence begets violence: “Results from most studies examining the relationship between violence exposure and delinquent behavior suggest that violent delinquents are more likely than nonviolent delinquents and controls to have experienced physical abuse” (Song, Singer & Anglin 532) . It is often those who have experienced violence themselves who need to resort to violence in their daily life. Violence can cause a vicious cycle of itself, perpetuating itself ad infinitum. Lastly, violence itself can be destructive of the psyche of the perpetrator, not just the victim. In a study of returning Iraqi war veterans, a research study concluded that those who had reported killing someone in war was a high predictor of posttraumatic stress disorder: “Overall, 40% of soldiers [out of 2797 soldiers] reported killing or being responsible for killing during their deployment. Even after controlling for combat exposure, killing was a significant predictor of posttraumatic disorder (PTSD) symptoms, alcohol abuse, anger, and relationship problems. Military personnel returning from modern deployments are at risk of adverse mental health conditions and related psychosocial functioning related to killing in war.” (Maguen et al. 1 ). Similarly, the same results were found for police officers:
The psychology of inflicting harm to others or taking a life in the line of duty is complex and impacts several aspects of the individual’s life. In addition to the potentially traumatic nature of killing or injuring another individual, such experiences in police are complicated by complaints by citizens, attention of the media, as well as internal and criminal investigations that may accompany those events. In the current study, killing or seriously injuring someone in the line of duty was associated with PTSD symptoms and marginally with depression symptoms, but not with social adjustment or alcohol use. Killing or seriously injuring someone in the line of duty was a significant predictor of PTSD symptoms even after controlling for age, gender, minority status, relationship status, and exposure to direct personal life threat. (Komarovskaya et al. 1335 )
There are, it must be said, in accordance with William R. Marty, three types of non-violence: “non-resisting nonviolence, persuasive nonviolence and coercive nonviolence.” (Marty 6) All three forms of non-violence are motivated, as has been noted, by either “prudential” or “theoretical” concerns.(Marty 6) Marty’s exposition of the supposed moral superiority, that is the theoretical part, of non-violence is worth mentioning, since it provides the justification as to why nonviolence leads to more freedom in the short and long term. First, nonviolence is supposedly superior in a moral sense because “it is an expression of love that accepts punishment upon itself, rather than imposing it on the opponent. Such self-sacrificing love is held to be redemptive to both parties in the dispute.”(Marty 6) Second, non-violence is less coercive than full on violence since “it persuades a man by appealing to his conscience and better impulses, rather than coercing him against his will.”(Marty 6) In this way the “chain of violence…is broken.” Third, non-violence is said to be a “spiritual force” and not a “physical force”(Marty 6). Fourth, “it is sometimes held to be a commandment of religious faith.”(Marty 6).
The next question to be broached is the efficacy and desirability of non-violence. Most theorists of violence share the intuition with their non-violent brethren that non-violence is, in the ideal state, more preferable to violence itself — the former believe violence a necessary evil while the latter think it an unjustified evil. So is non-violence both a principle and a feasible alternative in a world full of violent action by those who would dominate others? Some, like Paul Ricoeur think it a transcendental principle, of a higher order than violence, more godly, more divine — “To take the violence of history serious is already to transcend it by the judgement. The ethical nature of consciousness is essentially opposed to the historical course of events. History says: violence. Consciousness rebounds and says: love.” (Ricoeur 228) Ricoeur essentially states that non-violence is a signifier of an end-time when there will no longer be the violence with which non-violent protest currently engages. It is a transcendental force because it brings the future into the present, and unites them. Its efficacy on the other hand is more precarious, and dependent on eminent personalities like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., on moral personalities, than on the use of non-violence per se. Only when the use of non-violence can be inextricably intertwined with the moral character and strength of a hero-like figure can there be the necessary symbolic effect needed to effectuate change.
But can there actually exist a perfectly nonviolent nonviolence? In other words, is it not the case that non-violence for the most part relies actually theoretically and prudentially on violence for to accomplish its ends. One must only consider the intended effects of certain non-violent acts: consider for example economic boycotts, something which actively works to deny livelihoods because of moral grounds. The South African grocer in the 70s and 80s who sold fruit found himself the target of nonviolent activists boycotting his goods and thus threatening his livelihood, i.e. a form of coercion. Similarly, much of nonviolence receives its force when the oppressor uses violence on the oppressed. The provocation of non-violence requires violence for its consummation.
I will critique the two aspects, transcendental principle and efficaciousness, of non-violence. On the first, it should be noted that while I may accept that there exists a kind of meta, transcendental belief in the ultimate goodness of non-violence and peace (although not all will accept this transcendentalism), it is certainly the case that self-interest, which is by definition a deviation from a transcendental truth, is the main impediment to change in the first place. This now makes the activist the waiter of the perpetrator, being dependent on the goodwill of the patron to change his ways. It is essentially passive and dependent and therefore with smaller likelihood of success. For example, appealing to the goodwill and Christian sentiments of the Afrikaner population of South Africa could only do so much, given that there were secular, partial truths for these individuals to maintain apartheid, such as their controlling major industry, a privilege which would be eradicated if the black South African population came to power. Moral force can only have so much effect on someone, who is divorced from the source of that morality. And keep in mind this is only if we accept the weighty assumption that non-violence has some transcendental reality to it, which an opponent, a strong opponent like Hiter could deny. Moreover, the transcendental ‘end of history’ narrative can be rejected out of hand — who says there is an end to history? And even if there were, why would it necessarily be non-violent? I see a world around me of competing wills, ad aeternum. Ricoeur would need to fundamentally change the metaphysics of this world, as I see it, in order for me, or anyone else, to buy his transcendental rhetoric.
The efficacy of non-violence is similarly dependent on the willingness of the oppressor to reflect, and introspect on the moral wrongness of their ways, something the oppressor might not always be willing to do. Christopher Hitchens brilliantly points out the futility of such moves against an opponent as visceral and aggressive as Adolf Hitler: By 1939, he [Gandhi] was announcing that, if adopted by “a single Jew standing up and refusing to bow to Hitler’s decrees,” such methods might suffice to “melt Hitler’s heart.” This may read like mere foolishness, but a personal letter to the Führer in the same year began with the words My friend and went on, ingratiatingly, to ask: “Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success?” (Hitchens 1). The cause of non-violence in the face of an aggressive, powerful foe is foolishness outright. And this is the problem of non-violence, that it preferences the powerful over the weak, relying on the moral scruples of the powerful rather than the ability for the weak to strike back.
Nonviolence then has its place in the pursuit of human freedom and dignity. It, however, cannot be seen as an absolute, but rather something with instrumental good — “will this tactic of nonviolence serve the cause of freedom more effectively than the use of violence?” is the question the activist must ask himself over and over.
In this chapter I have broached the topic of the contributory nature of violence towards freedom. We have seen may different types of violence, from the psychological, physical to the symbolical. Different theorists have given us the conceptual tools for understanding the justification behind violence within a certain context. Waldenfels elaborated how violence can be separated into intraordinal and interordinal kinds and how these two bleed into each other. Barringotn Moore Jr. told us how we needed to differentiate between the violence of the oppressed and the oppressor, and how violence served to dramatize issues, something with which Coser agreed, calling violence as ‘danger signal.’ Next we saw the positive freedom associated with violence from the Fanonian perspective, as well as the daily struggle against symbolic capital and symbolic domination from Pierre Bourdieu.
After we dealt with violence, we looked at the pitfalls of violence itself and the alternative non-violence. Violence was strongly associated with destruction of the victim’s and the perpetrator’s psyche as well as perpetuating an infinite circle of violent acts through time and space. Nonviolence was shown to have a two parts to it, theoretical and prudential. The theoretical part contained the supposed moral superiority of violence which was refuted on the grounds of the submissiveness of the activist to the perpetrator. The prudential was left up in the air, for further tactical discussions as to whether violence or nonviolence should be used.
Chapter 4: The Russian Revolutions of February and October 1917
Now that I have elaborated freedom and its connection to violence, it is logical to move onto a concrete example of revolution. I intend to analyze the February and Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 for my case study.
When discussing Revolution it is first and foremost necessary to define it, since people contain vastly different conceptions of what constitutes a proper revolution. This is especially true when it comes to the revolutionary period in Russia around 1917 and ending sometime after the civil war in 1921. I will try to sidestep this problem by not defining any period of time as constituting the revolution, but rather distinct moments when power collapses and changes hands as a result of some action. In the February revolution the action was the riots and protests of hungry people on the streets of Petrograd. In the October Revolution the action was the Bolshevik military seizure of Petrograd and the symbolic and actual home of the Provisional Government in the Winter Palace.
With any historical event, it is crucial first to understand what actually happened and how. We must place the 1917 Revolution within its broader socio-historical context, namely starting with the state of the Tzarist government on the cusp of Revolution, during its entanglement within World War One in 1917. The essential quality of Russia’s participation in the war is that the country was woefully underprepared, underequipped, and overwhelmed for a war on the scale of World War One. “In reality, however, this army was a serious force only against semi-barbaric peoples, small neighbours and disintegrating states; on the European arena it could act only as part of a coalition; in the matter of defence it could fulfil its task only be the help of the vastness of spaces, the sparsity of population, and the impassability of the roads.” (Trotsky & Shawki 33) The Russian army was woefully inadequate compared to other Western powers as attested to by some of the leading Russian generals during the war: “General Ruszky confessed to the same ministers: “The present-day demands of military technique are beyond us. At any rate we can’t keep up with the Germans.” That was not the mood of a moment. Officer Stankevich reports the words of an engineer of the corps: “It is hopeless to fight with the Germans, for we are in no condition to do anything; even the new methods of fighting become the causes of our failure.”” (Trotsky & Shawki 34).
All this incompetence and inadequacy, combined with the enormous death toll of the war, led to mass protests and riots within Russia, and especially the main cities. Starting on the 23 February 1917, when thousands of women protested about the bread shortage in Petrograd, in honor of International Women’s day, the next few days witnessed hundreds of thousands of workers, as well as “students and members of the middle classes” chanting “Down with the War” and “Down with the Tsarist government.” (Smith 5) On 26 February, in what would amount to a kind of Bastille event for the Tsarist regime, soldiers were ordered to fire on the crowds, killing hundreds of people. (Smith 5). The next day, many military units followed the mutiny of Volynskii and his regiment, essentially depriving the tsar of control of the army, who by the 27th had decided to join the protesters calling for the end of the tsar. Unwilling, and perhaps unable, to maintain power, the tsar abdicated at the request of the Duma on March 3rd.
Our analysis will begin here with the February revolution, the precursor to the Bolshevik Revolution in the latter part of the year. The essential moment in the February revolution is the tipping point between authority and the dissolution of authority which protest and mass action can cause. It was only when the army refused to obey the orders of the tsar to dissolve all crowds from Petrograd that his position in power was pulled out from underneath him. This involves a twofold understanding of the violence of the protestor, and the violence of the army itself. It is a dynamic system — the willingness of the crowd to engage in violence provokes the willingness of the army to use violence, but the calculation of the army is their inferiority in numbers, and their esprit de corps with their fellow Russians. Hence violence is both provoked and suppressed, and the more it is provoked, the more violence is required yet simultaneously the more repulsive becomes that violence. Note the willingness of the Petrograd rioters to use violence, as Trotsky relates from police reports of those fateful days in late February: “In the course of the disorders it was observed as a general phenomenon, that the rioting mobs showed extreme defiance towards the military patrols, at whom, when asked to disperse, they threw stones and lumps of ice dug up from the street. When preliminary shots were fired into the air, the crowd not only did not disperse but answered these volleys with laughter. Only when loaded cartridges were fired into the very midst of the crowd, was it found possible to disperse the mob, the participants in which, however, would most of them hide in the yards of nearby houses, and as soon as the shooting stopped come out again into the street.” (Trotsky & Shawki 95) The visceral violence of the rioting masses elevates the stakes of the contest for authority, whether it is the people who are legitimate, and their concerns for food, wages and peace, or the desires of the ruling classes, those who give orders from above and are generally immune to the socio-economic pressures of the war. And in a way reminiscent of Lewis. A. Coser’s understanding in “Some Social Functions of Violence” , violence here serves as a “catalyst” — a spark for a socio-economic-legal conflagration that completely subverts, overturns, in a word, revolutionizes, the superstructure of Russian society. The violence of the crowds, the willingness for workers and the bourgeoisie to break the law, the willingness for self-sacrifice, to put oneself in harm’s way, and to provoke the military response of the state, is precisely the grounds for revolution. And moreover, the violence of the state, the indiscriminate use of violence against the crowd, whose own indiscriminateness cries out a major loss of authority, is the converse ingredient for the system to destroy itself. What is clear, as was said from the outset, and explicitly stated by Hannah Arednt in On Revolution is that the control of the military is the key to any revolution. So long as the military apparatus belongs to the state, and is loyal to the state and its constituents, a revolution is impossible. We may now understand why Mao Zedong remarked that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.
Violence, as seen within a revolution, is the ultimate question mark for authority. Who wields it more effectively, more propagandistically, and more teleologically, wins the battle for the hearts and minds of people. If the crowd were peaceful, all the army would have to do is maintain its cool and remain peaceful itself, and then no desired goals would be achieved. It was because the violence of the state and the army was directed against the “will of the people”, not some metaphysical collective volition, but a concrete tangible accumulation of real needs and desires — women without bread to feed themselves and their children, workers without enough pay to last them, soldiers terrified of and enraged at the slaughter-fields of the Eastern European battlefront.
In Revolution, we see the real desire for and actual attainment of freedom. And this is freedom in both the positive and negative sense. Positively, the people are taking on ownership over their collective destiny, even though they might individually have separate ideas of what freedom means for them. They are becoming a subject as Berlin defined it. Negatively, they are throwing off the yoke of a failed state’s interference. Whereas before the state manipulated the country’s resources for a war not many Russians wanted, taxing higher, enlisting men, etc. now the people are free to change the course of government, to end the war, to demand better working conditions for the industrial workers, to abolish the king and so on and so forth.
Moreover, the understanding of the February Revolution cannot be understood divorced from its context as an “event”, a moment of supreme significance in the structure of Russian society or as William H. Sewell Jr. puts it, “ when historians argue for the importance of events, they have in mind occurrences that have momentous consequences, that in some sense “change the course of history”” (Sewell 842). Sewell’s understanding of historical events arises from his conceptualization of social, political and cultural structures which underlie any given society. Before we can apply his analysis to the February Revolution, we must understand what he means by structures. In the first place “structures are “both the medium and the outcome of the practices which constitute social system” (Sewell 842), that is structures play both an active and passive role in society, namely that people’s practices will affect the given social structure just as much as the social structure will affect people’s practices. Second, “the structures that govern practices in a given society [are] multiple, overlapping, and relatively autonomous rather than as forming a single, unified totality of some kind” (Sewell 842). The social structure is a complex autonomous system, not a simple hierarchical one. Third, “structures [are] composed simultaneously of cultural schemas, distributions of resources, and modes of power” (Sewell 842). Each of these terms, cultural schemas, distributions of resources, modes of power require explanation and definition. It is worthwhile to include Sewell’s definitions of such terms: “Cultural schemas provide actors with meanings, motivations, and recipes for social action. Resources provide them (differentially) with the means and stakes of action. Modes of power regulate action — by specifying what schemas are legitimate, by determining which persons and groups have access to which resources, and by adjudicating conflicts that arise in the course of action” (Sewell 842). Therefore we see that structures are complex systems out of which a complex order arises.
Structures tend to replicate practices in a consistent fashion over time: “most social practices — whether international diplomacy, petty trade, or popular recreation — tend to be consistently reproduced over relatively extended periods of time” (Sewell 842). There, however, can develop change within a given structure and when it does occur it tends to be an overwhelming and intense outburst of structural change: “When changes do take place, they are rarely smooth and linear in character; instead, changes tend to be clustered into relatively intense bursts” (Sewell 843). This can happen from small incremental changes adding up, or from one major moment: “Even the accumulation of incremental changes often results in a build- up of pressures and a dramatic crisis of existing practices rather than a gradual transition from one state of affairs to another. Lumpiness, rather than smoothness, is the normal texture of historical temporal” (Sewell 843). Historical events change history because they take a system off its current trajectory, and direct the system in a completely new orientation: “What makes historical events so important to theorize is that they reshape history, imparting an unforeseen direction to social development and altering the nature of the causal nexus in which social interactions take place.” (Sewell 843)
Now we can define the event and understand its importance for Revolution. Sewell conceives the event “as sequences of occurrences that result in transformations of structures” (Sewell 843). These events begin with a disregard for the past, a break of sorts: “Such sequences begin with a rupture of some kind — that is, a surprising break with routine practice. Such breaks actually occur every day — as a consequence of exogenous causes, of contradictions between structures, of sheer human inventiveness or perversity, or of simple mistakes in enacting routine” (Sewell 843). These breaks can occur on an individual level or a group level. These events are contagious to some extent because every micro-structure is connected to a larger structure: “Because structures are articulated to other structures, initially localized ruptures always have the potential of bringing about a cascading series of further ruptures that will result in structural transfor- mations — that is, changes in cultural schemas, shifts of resources, and the emergence of new modes of power” (Sewell 844)
The sheer weight of war and its toll on the Russian economy, the dislocation of millions of soldiers, the starvation of women and children from war rationing, all this contributed to a major rupture in the social structure of Russia, so much so that a new event, a women’s march, was enough to topple the government and transform a country that had been a monarchy for centuries into a tentative democracy.
The October, or Bolshevik Revolution occurred in late October 1917. The Provisional Government, which was set up following the February Revolution, sought to crackdown on the Bolshevik elements within Petrograd. When the Provisional Government ordered the shutdown of the Bolshevik printing press on the night of 23–24 October,Leon Trotsky, a prominent Bolshevik and military leader, used this pretext to mobilize the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC) to seize control over bridges, railway station and other strategic points within the city. (Smith 37) By the morning of the 25 October only the Winter Palace remained untaken. That day, against the backdrop of artillery fire on the Winter Palace, Lenin appeared before the Petrograd soviet, proclaiming the beginning of a socialist state: “In Russia, we must now set about building a proletarian socialist state.” (Smith 38).
The causes behind the facts are split mainly into two camps: “ According to one, the October Revolution was the product of the deepest historical trends in the Russian past. The other maintains that it was a willful imposition on those trends, arbitrarily reversing them” (Daniels 331). Soviet historiography tended to emphasize the historical inevitability of the revolution, although conceding a large amount of space towards theories that pointed out Lenin’s personal genius. The vast bulk of non-soviet historiography asserts that Russia veered away from its projected path towards constitutional democracy: “… most non-Communist historiography represents the Bolshevik coup as a deliberate and untoward reversal of what is presumed to be Russia’s natural evolution toward constitutional democracy” (Daniels 331). According to Robert Daniels, there are about four interpretations of the October Revolution as the natural outgrowth of Russia’s historical development, all of which are deficient in explaining the Revolution: “one, of course, is the official theory of the proletarian revolution; another is the theory of the revolutionary wave; a third is the theory of the modernizing dictatorship; a fourth is the notion that Russian cultural traditions made a democratic solution impossible.” (Daniels 331–332).
The first interpretation, the official theory of the now-defunct Soviet state, the proletariat revolution, holds that the productive forces and the social structure of the state determined the revolution. This, as Daniels states, is flawed since it was precisely in the less advanced and less developed country Russia, than the more developed countries, like Germany and France, where the ‘proletariat revolution’ occurred. The second interpretation of the revolutionary wave is that a more moderate revolution is followed by an extremist, and then a return to some normalcy: “According to this model of a revolutionary “wave” or “fever” following a crisis in the old order, an initial moderate revolution is naturally succeeded by an extremist phase and then a reaction. The moderate phase is, of course, represented by the February Revolution in Russia, while the Bolsheviks, as the extremists, were the Russian equivalent of the French Jacobins and the regime of Oliver Cromwel” (Daniels 333). This theory cannot hold because the Bolsheviks held onto power for another 70 years or so, sidestepping any “Thermidorian Reaction”. The third interpretation of the dictatorship of modernization suggests that the Bolsheviks came into power because they were willing and capable of carrying out a programme of state modernization: “The Bolsheviks had the qualities of discipline and determination to hold power under the difficult circumstances of a country in transition, and eventually they undertook the systematic modernization of Russia by dictatorial measures of state socialism.” (Daniels 334). This, however, can only partly explain the Bolshevik success, because there were alternatives to such development, even under a capitalist regime: “A military dictatorship with a paternalistic state-promoted capitalism -perhaps something like Japan before World War II-could have done as well; Japan in fact has achieved in this century just about the same per capita economic growth as Russia, by very different methods.” (Daniels 335). The last necessitarian interpretation concerns the relationship between Russian cultural traditions and its compatibility with democracy. This theory can easily be discarded, for several reasons. Russian culture is rooted in sociological structures which change all the time, and more so during revolutionary periods. But as Daniels notes, that even if Russian mentalities did “swing from passive submission to an altogether unworkable anarchism” (Daniels 335), this cultural model presents no explanatory power as to why the Bolhseviks came to power and not the rightist-military elements lead by General Kornilov.
The second camp of theories attributes the success of the Bolshevik Revolution to the dominant personality and political genius of Vladimir Lenin: “The success of the Bolsheviks in taking power by armed insurrection and holding it as a one-party dictatorship is inconceivable without the personal force of Lenin, his truly Nietzche an will-to-power” (Daniels 335). Lenin seized power when the opportunity presented itself. But his indomitable will is explicable into real concrete, political terms when we consider his mastery of propaganda and organization: “Lenin was able to sense the mood of the masses and play upon it adroitly with promises of bread, land, peace, and power to the soviets. He was able to exploit momentary issues and misunder- standings to great effect-for example, the rumors early in October that there was a right-wing plot afoot to surrender Petrograd to the Germans and thus stifle the revolution.” (Daniels 336) . This propaganda element combined with organizational effort made Lenin into an unstoppable force in the overthrowing of the Provisional Government: “Even more commonly stressed, by both Communist and anti-Com-munist historians, is the role of the Bolshevik Party as the monolithic instrument that transmitted Lenin’s will to the masses and made his intentions a reality.” (Daniels 336)
What we require now is an assessment and evaluation of the type of man and character Vladimir Lenin was, since his personality is so inextricably intertwined with the fate of the October Revolution. Lenin was a dedicated man, an avowed revolutionary who had an all-encompassing vision for revolution. As Neil Faulkner writes about him, Lenin’s main components for his revolution were “ a vision of the world transformed by revolutionary action; an underground activist network to turn this vision into a framework political organisation; the growing of this organisation into a mass social movement through recruitment of the most militant people in every industrial centre; and the eventual role of this essentially proletarian-urban movement in detonating a country-wide insurrection of the Russian Narod” (Faulkner 54). Lenin’s main achievement was to combine the theory of Marx and Engels with his own distinctive praxis, and action, something to which historians consider a remnant of the Narodnik movement: “In him, the romantic tradition of revolutionary heroes battling a police state was allied to the theory and practice of international working-class revolution.” (Faulkner 58). Thus, instead of the proletariat being the bringer of the revolution as Marx had noted, Lenin become the embodiment and hero of the working class: “More precisely — and true to Marx’s axiom that ‘the emancipation of the working class will be the act of the working class’ — the two conceptions fused in Leninism, such that the heroic leader of the people became the revolutionary proletariat itself.” ( Faulkner 58).
But just as Lenin is himself a crucial cog for understanding the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, so too is his organ for revolution, the Bolshevik party, about which he theorized extensively. Lenin began properly to theorize and construct a revolutionary party back in 1900 when he left Russia for Geneva to meet with more experienced revolutionaries like George Plekhanov. “In the course of this work he formulated what in retrospect proved to be the fundamental ideas underlying the Communist movement — his theory of the tightly organized and disciplined party of “professional revolutionaries.” (Daniels 6). Lenin consciously knew that rigorous, self-reflective theorizing would have to underlie the Bolsheviks if they were to succeed as a vanguardist party of Marxist revolution: “The role of vanguard fighter can be fulfilled only by a party that is guided by the most advanced theory” (Daniels 7) Lenin knew that the organization had to be filled with the most committed, most revolutionary forces within Russia if it were to survive the onslaught of police and state authority directed towards revolutionary organizations:
I assert: 1) that no revolutionary movement can endure without a stable organization of leaders that maintains continuity; 2) that the wider the masses spontaneously drawn into the struggle, forming the basis of the movement and participating in it, the more urgent the need of such an organization, and the more solid this organization must be (for it is much easier for demagogues to sidetrack the more backward sections of the masses); 3) that such an organization must consist chiefly of people professionally engaged in revolutionary activity; 4) that in an autocratic state, the more we confine the membership of such an organization to people who are professionally engaged in revolutionary activity and to have been professionally trained in the art of combatting the political police, the more difficult will it be to wipe out such an organization, and 5) the greater will be the number of people of the working class and of the other classes of society who will be able to join the movement and perform active work in it. (Daniels 9–10)
Lenin understood the need for a committed cadre of revolutionaries who were willing to fight to the bitter end for revolutionary goals. This, it must be said, is what differentiates the Bolsheviks from the rest of the other political groupings in 1917; their willingness to fight, their organizational superiority and tactical flexibility. The Bolsheviks as a party could fight beyond the dictates of material self-interest; in fact precisely when the material conditions of Russia deteriorated because of the war effort and the ineffective Provisional Government, was the moment when the Bolsheviks started to consolidate their power among the people and the workers. And then when the moment arrived, when the power of the state failed, that was when the Bolsheviks, organized, and theoretically willing, could pounce on the situation and set up a government in their image.
In line with the previous paragraphs, we must state that there was nothing historically necessary about the Bolshevik revolution. It was a revolution conducted by a select group of people. The first thing to be noted about the Bolshevik Revolution is its vanguardist element, that is it was not a spontaneous mass uprising like the February Revolution, but a semi-spontaneous, semi-planned uprising of a select, ideological sect. The Bolsheviks instigated and won this revolution single-handedly, assuming the reigns of power for themselves. They imposed their vision on most of the population. This poses problems for Berlinian positive freedom, namely the prohibition on paternalism derived from Kant. The question, however, remains whether this revolution promoted freedom or not. And it must also be noted firmly that even under the most enlightened form of liberal democratism which Berlin admired, there are definite, strong strains of paternalism, like the Founding Fathers and their admired constitution. Analytically, this is perhaps a matter of degree whether this paternalism was stronger than the founding fathers version. It is, however, a question beyond the scope of this paper.
What we are approaching is the fundamental question of freedom, either positive or negative. Freedom is, as the impartial comparison between the American and Russian revolution, something polemical, something arguable. Freedom has no absolute, in accordance with Berlin: it is to be won and defined and implemented by a ruling elite. The Bolshevik revolution is a special case study on what happens when power evaporates and the army dissipates; when an armed force of political adherents seize the reigns of power and implement their own programme on freedom.
Revolution is exciting precisely because the door to power, the door to new possibilities opens wide. And the men and women who take the opportunity to seize power are rewarded with the infinite malleability of society — the ability to decide the destiny of the country. Should a revolution have a telos, a purpose? I believe it should: it should aim at the most universalistic goal, for then the most amount of freedom for the most amount of people will be realized. The only difference between the foundation of Islamic State and the American republic is the ideals for which they were fought. Most, if not all, will believe the American republic to be the more enlightened precisely because it is less stringent in its punishments and more inclusive of other individuals. In this same way, I believe that the more universalistic a country’s national goal, the better. But this statement has a prior unjustified conviction which is itself, i.e. the statement is axiomatic — more freedom for more people because more freedom is good. I acknowledge that not everyone has to agree with me — that there are some people whose ultimate good is the imposition of Sharia law; or others the glorification and idealization of the working class. These are ultimate differences; but I believe a reasonable person, an empathetic person would want more freedom for others. And those who don’t, those who would rather crush and obliterate their enemies, or who would form an exclusive social sect at the expense of others, whether it be Islamic, Marxist, Anarchist, etc., these are my political opponents with whom I must contend. I hope this has sufficiently shown that there is no ultimate justification of freedom, but rather an endless political struggle for the means of power.
And it is towards this end, the means of power, that violence is in its true teleological form. Violence can only be justified in terms of this — it seeks to control the legitimate use of force within the country. Violence seeks to turn itself into legitimacy in the realm of politics. The Bolshevik Revolution was unjustified in the moment strictly speaking. But as soon as the Bolsheviks controlled the means of power, they legitimized themselves and their goals.
Freedom, especially in its positive incarnation, the desire to control one’s collective destiny, is inextricably combined with violence, either legitimate or illegitimate. Those in power have a conception of freedom and implement it to the exclusion of other freedom-seeking ideologies. As Niklas Luhmann in his “Trust and Power” writes — “Power is composed of the distribution of preferences for alternatives and depends, therefore, so far as its components are concerned, on combinations of such preferences.” (Luhmann 146). Power is the ability to be the arbiter of preferences for society. It is the role of a revolutionary to impose his freedom-seeking ideology, to attain power so as to implement an ideology. As it has been since time immemorial, politics concerns strife, the endless struggle for power and the right to control the people’s destiny.
Three major concepts have filled the pages of this thesis: Freedom, Violence and Revolution. It is possible to construct a circular theory which incorporates these three concepts within it. Power is the status quo — composed of and controlled by a current ideological elite. Power seeks to preserve itself, against other ideological sects within society. Freedom-seeking is the difference between the ruling power’s ideology and a given group’s ideology within society. If I live in a monarchy, but I am a republican I am unfree. I must seek to replace my government, if I am to be true to my political convictions and principles. If I live in a capitalist-bourgeois society but I am a communist, I am unfree and must seek to overthrow my government. Freedom is in this sense, sectarian, since not everyone shares the same conception of freedom. Violence is the means to achieve my freedom. It creates something new, ends something old, overthrows. Revolution is the ultimate goal — the culmination of a successful violent campaign to dislodge an antagonistic ruling class, whose conception of freedom is different to my own. But once the revolution has occurred, those who were freedom-seekers become power-holders, and hence begins the battle again for freedom and the means of power through violence and eventually revolution.
The February Revolution and Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 are examples of when the power of the state collapses due to internal and external pressures. Once this power has dissipated, who takes control of the reigns is another question. The Bolshevik Revolution is proof that a sufficiently well-organized, well-mobilized party combined with a leading figure of indefatigable energy and vision can take control of the state in a time of power- and legitimacy-based crisis and implement their ideology.
Since the ruling elite, the select group of people at the reigns of power, determine the dominant ideology, a revolution is intimately connected with a conception of freedom. This freedom is both positive and negative in the Berlinian sense — concerned both with the self-actualization of the individual and the role and extent of the state in the life of the individual.
Violence is the medium through which change occurs, through which the power differentials within society, the difference between the dominator and the dominated, become apparent and resolve themselves. Violence more often than not belongs to the oppressor, and he who controls the means and legitimacy of violence is the arbiter of society itself. But violence is unstable, and can belong as much to the oppressed as much as the oppressor. And it is when the weaker, or the advocate of the weak stands up to legitimized violence by the strong, that revolutionary potential becomes apparent.
My thesis has explored the connection between Freedom, Violence and Revolution. Its ultimate conclusions are pessimistic from the perspective of a non-violent utopian — freedom and violence are inextricably intertwined in an infinite process. So long as there are power differentials within society, so long as sociological structures tend to favor some over others, there will always be the means and requirement for some to take up the role of violent revolutionary. And insofar as this need exists, my conclusions are pro-violence — that is given there exists a political-economic-social arrangement where some are dominated, the cause and justification of violence is just.
The fight for freedom, as it so justifiably should be called, is an endless struggle from a perspectival viewpoint. Society will coerce some so that others will be freer and more prosperous. Revolutionary action exists to the extent that the dominated rise up against the dominators. Freedom to and from, the freedom to be a subject and the freedom not to be coerced, is different for everyone — and those who find themselves on the more oppressive sphere of society’s control, can only resort to violence to solve their problems, and achieve their freedom.
Freedom and violence are reconcilable to the extent that there are unequal positions of power within society; that the dominated have the right and duty to rise up against their oppressors and use violence. Revolutions are an outward expression of such a right in extremis.
In Chapter 1, my thesis found that within Berlin’s seminal paper “Two Concepts of Liberty” there exists a unity of liberty — that freedom to and freedom from are actually one discreet whole — something which the term self-actualization covers. In the original piece self-actualization referred exclusively to positive freedom, while negative freedom pertained to non-interference. In this thesis I assert that all freedom is derivative of self-actualization, and that negative freedom is merely a necessary condition for positive freedom.
In Chapter 2, I examined Hannah Arendt’s conception of political freedom within On Revolution and found that her analysis of freedom inappropriately excluded violence from a more expansive conception of freedom, and concluded that violence is an integral component and force for freedom itself.
In Chapter 3, I investigated all the different functions and roles of violence for attaining freedom. This was supplemented by an investigation into the role and functions of non-violence. I concluded that violence is an integral tool for the oppressed to make their frustrations and goals known within a society that has relegated them to an inferior status.
And in Chapter 4, I explored the actual instance of revolution within the February and Bolshevik revolution of 1917 in Russia. I discovered that violence was a crucial catalyst and part of the process which led to the fall of the Romanov dynasty and the Provisional Government. I explored the role of “events” in history, as well as the figure of Lenin and the party of the Bolsheviks.
At the end, we discover what has been known since the beginning by those in an active role in political life, that power and violence are the only means with which to structure society in a world full of individuated wills. Political life is a war, a battle between people with different conceptions of the good life. Freedom requires action, and violence is the ultimate finality of action.
Those who take human emancipation seriously, must be prepared to risk their lives and to take others, as much as our longing for peace contradicts this utopia-shattering sentiment.
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