Reflections on Revolutionary Violence
In the last one year, I have often found myself going back to a conversation I had had with a Maoist ideologue. As it happened, it was he who started interrogating me about my stand on violence. ‘So, you have become a Gandhian?’ he demanded. I must confess I was a bit taken aback, not quite able to figure out the context of this poser. ‘What do you mean by Gandhian’, I kind of mumbled. Pat came his reply: ‘Well you have been making some noises lately about Maoist violence, haven’t you?’ Suddenly it all became clear. Through this ridicule, he was trying to appeal to that part of me that still remained marxist – presumably now buried in some remote past – and to resurrect it against my ostensible ‘non-marxist’, ‘liberal’ present (for which ‘Gandhian’ was some kind of a short hand code). I found myself at a loss of words. Does a criticism of the mindless and nihilistic violence of the Maoists make one a Gandhian? Is there no space left between these two polar positions? The conversation did not go very far that day but has kept coming back to me ever since.
I must hasten to add though that in this day and age, I do not find the epithet ‘Gandhian’ atrocious as I might have two decades ago. Notwithstanding Gandhi’s completely wrong-headed approach to the struggle against caste and on matters of class, there are aspects of Gandhi that make him appear far more visionary today than any other leader, thinker or political current of his time. But more on that some other time.
The reason I have been going back to that conversation quite often lately is that I have begun to feel this disappearance of the middle ground ever more intensely. You can either be one or the other – and this choice is forced on us equally by the state as by the ‘revolutionaries.’ The last one year has furnished more and more evidence of the fact that it is the state that wants us to make this impossible choice: either you with us or you are a Maoist. We have on earlier occasions, written on Kafila about how the state has been working overtime manufacturing Maoists – branding activists like Roma in Sonbhadra or elsewhere as Maoists, arresting the likes of Binayak Sen and keeping them under indefinite detention for being a ‘Maoist’. The state’s demand is indistinguishable from that of the Maoist ideologue - an unholy and unstated compact, if you will of dividing up the political space at least in some parts of India. And the fundamental premise underlying this demand, as always, is that ‘this is a war.’
This is war indeed. You can substitute ‘Islamic terrorist’ and ‘the Nation’ for the terms above and the argument will remain structurally identical. So, this is war – war on terror for the State and a war of liberation or jehad for the revolutionaries. And haven’t we learnt that ‘all is fair’ in war. It is the logic of ‘war’ that enables the State/Nation and its security forces to stage encounters, kill, arrest and torture innocents while suppressing any critical voice as anti-national. That is what enables the state to suspend the ordinary processes of law and promulgate / invoke extraordinary laws that negate every democratic norm. It is never the ‘revolutionary’ - Maoist or Islamic or any such - who is arrested and tortured. In this neat compact, we have the perfect elimination of all middle ground - everybody is a suspected Maoist or jehadi on the one hand or an anti-national terrorist on the other. If Mao wanted his guerrillas to live among the peasant masses like fish in water, his followers have successfully dried up the river. There ain’t no water. It is thus the purely military organization of terror that stalks these parts of the country. That is why the life of the common person in the tribal areas of Chhattisgarh shares so much with that of an ordinary urban Muslim today: always at the mercy of the one or the other.
To a revolutionary – it matters little whether s/he is spurred by the ideology of ‘Maoism’, nationalism or global radical Islam – all such talk is sentimental nonsense. All talk that mourns the loss of innocent lives is nonsense precisely because it privileges the small, local, everyday joys and sorrows over the large Utopias of Liberation. Utopias that are precisely that – U-topias or nonplaces. If one sifts through the debris of twentieth century political thought and practice, one will see that violence is intrinsic to the Utopian imagination, to the desire to build the world in its own image. Stalinist socialism, Hitlerite National-Socialism, the Maoist Cultural Revolution or Pol Pot’s racial Khmer ‘socialism’ – all share one characteristic: They wanted to mould the world according to their vision and produce a frightening, monochromatic uniformity. And not surprisingly all of them drew heavily on the military imagination: Red Armies, the Sturm Abteilung or the Freikorps, the spectacles of grand parades, a militarily regimented society and what have you…
Dig deep into that debris of nineteenth and twentieth century political thought: you will not find one enduring change that this frenzied search for ‘power’ has produced. These messianic utopian movements did succeed in capturing state power but all the change that they produced – if at all – was ephemeral, as short-lived as the revolutions themselves. Democracy, universal suffrage, eight-hour working day, the civil rights struggles, the struggles against gender and caste discrimination, the recognition of different sexualities – all these are transformations that have taken place without armed vanguard militias, as part of patient, everyday struggles.
Even capitalism has changed over the last century and a half because of workers struggles and the impact of ecological movements – not because armed revolutionaries ‘captured state power.’ In fact, the greatest irony is that the impact of the seizure of power on the nature of capitalism, if any, was not where power was captured but elsewhere – in the industrialized capitalist countries, in the form of the New Deal and the welfare state. Everywhere else, former revolutionaries are ever only frantically building capitalism.
Violence, then. Of what use is it or has it been, even historically speaking? And what does it mean? Notwithstanding Mao’s ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’ or Sartre’s utterly misplaced idea of violence as a cleansing force: ‘To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone…there remains a dead man and a free man.’ In fact the ‘original’ Indian Maoist – the Naxalite leader Charu Mazumdar was probably closer to this Sartre than either Marx or even Mao. ‘He who has not dipped his hands in the blood of the class enemy is not worthy of being called a communist’ – that was Charu Mazumdar for you. Unlike present day Maoists, of course, Charu Babu, forbade the use of fire-arms. He prescribed smaller everyday arms used by the peasants – the sickle for example – to gruesomely kill and let the blood flow out. Many young followers would then dip their hands in that blood and paint the police stations red. Which Marx or Marxism does this notion of violence come from? It would be difficult, despite Mao’s insistence on the gun, to actually show any such instance in pre-revolution China. Former Naxalite and sociologist Rabindra Ray probably surmised correctly that this kind of ‘cult of violence’ within the early Naxalite movement derived more from Tantrism and the cults of Kali rather than from Marxism – the very indigenous roots of Naxalism, if you please. Some day a more serious investigation of this connection will have to be undertaken and it will also bring out, among other things, the facile and spurious nature of the essentialist notion of a non-violence loving, tolerant India. But that is another story.
In the first decade of the last century, Goerge Sorel responded to a series of debates on violence within the socialist movement in France and Italy. A general disgust with the compromises and betrayal by parliamentary socialist/social democratic parties permeated the militant working class movement. Revolutionary syndicalism was one of the trends that were of vital importance in the Parisian working class and which stood opposed to the idea of ‘state socialism’, advocating rather, a ‘society of associated producers’. Sorel’s tract Reflections on Violence has of course gone down in history as one of the notorious justifications of revolutionary violence but it would be worth looking at one aspect of his reflections which help put things in perspective. For Sorel does not simply justify violence of all sorts. He underlines (borrowing from Kautsky) that ‘the motive force of the revolutionary movement must also be the motive force of the ethic of the producers.’ He interprets this thesis in his own way by arguing that ‘the influence of the syndicates in labour should result from complex and sometimes distant causes, acting on the general character of the workers than from a quasi-military organization.’ In other words, it must be in tune with the life and ethic of the workers/producers – drawing on it as well as acting upon it. In a sense, this is a radical argument against ‘violence as pure means’, insisting that ‘you must be the change that you want the world to be.’ Sorel likens the worker/producer to a soldier of what he calls the ‘wars of Liberty’ – unlike the mercenary soldiers or automatons of royal armies – in that they are already ‘free men’ in spirit.
Sorel finds the same spirit ‘among working class groups who are eager for the general strike’ – ‘they picture the Revolution as an immense uprising which yet may be called individualistic; each working with the greatest possible zeal, each acting on his own account, and not troubling himself much to subordinate his conduct to a great and scientifically combined plan.’ In this release of revolutionary energy by the working class movement, Sorel sees ‘the revolutionary syndicalists’ desire to exalt the individuality of the life of the producer.’ As such, he says, ‘they run counter to the interests of politicians who want to direct the Revolution in such a way as to transmit power to a new minority.’ This appears to be the crux of the matter. Violence – revolutionary violence – can be justified if and only if, it is a mass uprising based on the unleashing of the creative revolutionary energies of the workers/producers; on no account can it be justified from this point of view if it is based on a military or quasi-military organization and led by a minority that will then usurp power ‘on behalf of’ the workers/producers. I hope it is clear by now that this notorious justification of violence by a Marxist-syndicalist is anything but Gandhian. Nonetheless, it is predicated upon a firm and unequivocal rejection of violence perpetrated by a military or a quasi-military clique in the name of the people. Historical experience since Sorel shows clearly how farsighted he (and the early 20th century Syndicalists’) was in claiming that such violence always enables a new minority to usurp power in the name of the people it claims to represent.
Many decades later, in the wake of the May 1968 uprising in Europe, Hannah Arendt revisited the field earlier scanned by Sorel. The new justifications of violence by sections of the New Left led to Arendt’s sustained reflections in her 1969 Essay, also called Reflections on Violence (later followed up by her longer exposition On Violence).
For those who may not be familiar with Arendt’s writings, let us excerpt this passage that situates violence and its place within the Marxist tradition with a fair degree of accuracy:
“The strong Marxist flavor in the rhetoric of the New Left coincides with the steady growth of the entirely non-Marxian conviction, proclaimed by Mao Tsetung, “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” To be sure, Marx was aware of the role of violence in history, but this role was to him secondary; not violence but the contradictions inherent in the old society brought about its end. The emergence of a new society was preceded, but not caused, by violent outbreaks, which he likened to the labor pangs that precede, but of course do not cause, the event of organic birth.”
“In the same vein, Marx regarded the state as an instrument of violence at the command of the ruling class; but the actual power of the ruling class did not consist of nor rely on violence. It was defined by the role the ruling class played in society, or more exactly, by its role in the process of production. It has often been noticed, and sometimes deplored, that the revolutionary Left, under the influence of Marx’s teachings, ruled out the use of violent means; the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’—openly repressive in Marx’s writings—came after the revolution and was meant, like the Roman dictatorship, as a strictly limited period. Political assassination, with the exception of a few acts of individual terror perpetuated by small groups of anarchists, was mostly the prerogative of the Right, while organized armed uprisings remained the specialty of the military.”
Arendt revisits the entire terrain of Marxist and revolutionary engagement with violence and underlines that in the end, all that Sorel eventually did by way of justifying violence was to propose the ‘myth of the general strike’. What was meant to provide the only possible justification of violence in Sorel, turns out in Arendt’s profound reflections, a claim that such a revolutionary mass uprising ceases to be ‘violent’ - for this is precisely the point at which a new power is born.
In fact In the latter part of her essay, Arendt turns to what might be considered one of her most crucial theoretical interventions by proposing a distinction between ‘violence’ and ‘power’. She disaggregates the series of terms often used by political scientists and theorists almost simultaneously – power, violence, force, authority, might and strength. The most critical distinction she makes – and this is of central importance for our discussion – is that ‘Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together.’ To quote her further:
‘Power needs no justification as it is inherent in the very existence of political communities; what, however, it does need is legitimacy… Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert…’
‘Violence needs justification and it can be justifiable, but its justification loses in plausibility the farther away its intended end recedes into the future. No one will question the use of violence in self-defense because the danger is not only clear but present, and the end to justify the means is immediate.’
More importantly: ‘Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course its end is the disappearance of power.’
Arendt’s reflections are food for serious thought. For one thing, they draw attention to a very simple but never acknowledged fact: Violence is the symptom of the crisis of power. Put differently, when the figureheads of power lose legitimacy, violence steps in. She gestures to texts by revolutionary theorists (presumably also Engels’ ‘Introduction’ to Class Struggles in France) that talk of the difficulties of armed insurrections in the context of the ‘increased destructive capacities of weapons’ at the disposal of governments. She then proceeds to analyze this proposition. The gap between the state-owned means of violence, she argues, has always been far beyond what people can muster – beer bottles, Molotov cocktails or guns. ‘In a contest of violence against violence the superiority of the government has always been absolute’, she argues. Then what accounts for the success of revolutions? In a move as profound as it is novel, Arendt suggests that ‘this superiority lasts only so long as the power structure of the government is intact – that is so long as commands are obeyed.’
‘When this is no longer the case the situation changes rapidly. Not only is the rebellion not put down, the arms themselves change hands, sometimes within a few hours.’ When commands are no longer obeyed, the means of violence are of no use. This is the next stage of what Lenin called ‘dual power’ – the power of the soviets or counter institutions of popular power standing in opposition to state power. Not all situations of dual power will lead to a dissolution of the old power but when it happens, ‘arms themselves change hands’ and an armed uprising is no longer necessary. This is the secret of the many bloodless revolutions – including the October revolution in Russia. It is also the secret behind the fall of the Soviet empire and the fall of the Berlin wall in more recent times. When an uprising is a truly popular uprising, it has no need for armed combat. Troops themselves change sides. Just as an aside, it is important to underline that the October revolution was a really popular uprising even though the Bolsheviks themselves were a minority in the Soviets. Lenin’s ‘genius’ lay in taking over these institutions of popular power in exactly the way that Sorel feared new minorities would usurp power in the name of the people.
The question of revolutionary violence needs to be seen in this perspective. Violence – the nihilistic violence – undertaken by Maoist armies are undertaken by a handful of quasi-military dalams. Each dalam has not more than ten to fifteen fighters – that is about all. In the best of instances, dalam members constitute no more than a couple of hundred militants. Their support, if and when it exists, is because democratic channels of organizing and fighting are simply not allowed to exist by the short-sighted Indian state and the local vested interests. The Maoist ideologue with whom I began this discussion was betting on his best bet – the Indian state. He and the Indian state are in a permanent compact: each provides the other with its raison d’etre. One need only look at reports produced by Maoist sympathizers – not agents of the state – to be able to see that in regions ‘governed’ by Maoist ‘Sanghams’ (in Chhattisgarh or Gadchiroli, for instance), to see how no dissent or alternative authority is allowed to exist in these areas. What exists is an authoritarian set up where any dissenting person can only meet one fate - death. We can also see in these reports how, not unlike the fascist LTTE in Sri Lanka, families are forced to ‘contribute’ young children to ‘the movement’ (of these reports sound almost apologetic when they narrate such matters).
Critique of this kind of cult of violence is not Gandhian. It can be made from impeccably Marxist positions as well.