There’s a lot of argument about whether it is legitimate or ethical to use violence to overthrow an unjust system, and what counts as violence.
This argument all too often ignores the fact that the unjust system is already violent, denying life to, or restricting the life chances of, whole groups of people. Systemic, structural inequality is violence, as both Rhyd Wildermuth and Alley Valkyrie (among others) have pointed out. It shortens people’s lives through poverty, ill health, stress, suicide, despair, violent crime, and unjust killings by police.
A recent essay on Gods & Radicals examined the possibility of gods calling for the violent overthrow of an extremely unjust system: the system of slavery in Haiti, where the violent repression perpetrated by the slaveholders included flogging, burning alive, and other horrors. The huge death toll of the rebel slaves was a big price to pay for liberation from that violent system, but it had got to the point when violent uprising (and the possibility of dying in that uprising) was preferable to violent subjugation. I find it impossible to suggest that the rebel slaves acted wrongly: their sole choice was freedom or death. From a tactical and pragmatic point of view, the slaves vastly outnumbered the slaveholders, and therefore had the advantage of numbers, even if they didn’t have as many weapons.
The pragmatic revolution
On the same day as I read that article, I came across another piece of writing entitled Freedom or Death. It was Emmeline Pankhurst’s speech about being a suffragette. She said that things had reached such a desperate state for women that for them too, the choice was freedom or death. Consider that in the UK, women could own no property till 1871, and were themselves considered the property of their husband or father; that marital rape was legal till 1991, and until 1918, women had no vote to try to redress any of these injustices at the ballot box: therefore they had to try other means. However, women would be at a disadvantage compared to men, who were
physically stronger, and had more weapons at their disposal. Therefore, the methods of resistance available to women consisted of demonstrations, damage to property, and (on at least one occasion) disrupting the means of production. They cut the telegraph wires between the London Stock Exchange and the Edinburgh one. Once they started getting arrested, their means of resistance was the hunger strike: a desperate, difficult, and debilitating form of resistance. Eventually the tide of public opinion turned against the force-feeding of hunger-striking suffragettes, the Cat and Mouse Act (which detained them, released them when they became too weak from hunger striking, and then re-arrested them when they were well again), and other forms of repressing their protests, and the vote was eventually granted to women.
Similarly, the British had more firepower than the movement for independence in India, so the movement used non-violent resistance in the form of civil disobedience. There was a tax on salt and the production of salt was controlled by the government – so the campaigners marched to the sea and panned their own salt. It is very likely that the reason the British authorities gave in to the demands for independence was because they feared a violent uprising – but again, they had to balance the desire for control against the tide of public opinion.
Looking at the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960s, it is very clear that the government feared a violent uprising – not necessarily because they thought they would lose, but because of the ensuing public relations disaster if they brutally crushed an uprising, and the disruption to “business as usual”. This may have forced the government to cede some ground to the civil rights campaigners. The civil rights movement also used the tactic of disrupting the system: boycotting the segregated buses would have had quite a big economic effect. They also blocked highways, and very much disrupted “business as usual”. Non-violent doesn’t only mean protest marches – it can involve damage to property, blocking highways, cutting power cables and communication lines, and conducting sit-ins on private property. Non-violent resistance and civil disobedience are always met with violent repression on the part of the state, but it is harder for them to justify this against civil disobedience and destruction of property.
The tactics used by the Black Lives Matter movement are very similar to the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement; and the Civil Rights movement also got criticised for disrupting things, labelled as ‘too extreme’, and so on. How is it “extreme” to demand that the people who should be protecting you stop killing you, and recognise that your life matters as much as theirs? Last time I looked, there wasn’t a death penalty for shoplifting, having a broken tail-light on your car, carrying a toy plastic gun, or just generally existing while Black.
As to what tactics the BLM movement should be using – I would say that the situation is desperate enough that it makes sense to go for whatever works. There have been centuries of slavery, segregation, lynching, vote-rigging, redlining, sundowner towns, racial profiling, Jim Crow, imprisonment, subprime mortgages, mistreatment and exploitation. However, the militarisation of the police in the US is such that armed resistance on the part of BLM would immediately be crushed, so it probably makes sense to use other tactics (the goal here is achieving their aims, and not getting slaughtered because they would be massively outgunned, rather than pleasing the hand-wringing white “liberals” who claim that BLM is “behaving badly” compared to the Civil Rights movement). What might work is an increase in civil disobedience, disruption of business as usual – hit ’em where it hurts, in the wallet. That is how the boycotts of South African produce during apartheid worked, and how the 19th century boycotts of slave-produced sugar and cotton worked. The U.K. government has just made it illegal for public bodies such as universities and local councils to boycott goods from Israel, which suggests that the boycott was working. Again, just to be clear, I’m not saying that BLM shouldn’t use violence because it is immoral, but because it is impractical (as far as I can see). Mere acquiescence in the status quo is obviously not an option, because people are being killed at an astonishing rate by the very people who are supposed to protect them.
A successful revolution requires the army to be on the side of the revolution. The reason that the Russian revolution succeeded was because the soldiers formed soviets and acted to overthrow the Tsar. The recent Turkish coup (if it wasn’t a fake coup created by Erdogan to consolidate his power) might have worked if the entire army had sided with the coup.
Turning to a fictional example, compare the two novels The Fifth Sacred Thing and its sequel City of Refuge by Starhawk. (Spoiler alert! Skip to the next paragraph to avoid spoilers.) In the first novel, San Francisco has become a peaceful egalitarian co-operative permaculture-using society, while Los Angeles has been taken over by violent militarised fundamentalists (the Stewards). San Francisco drove the Stewards out twenty years before the time period of the novel – before they had succeeded in consolidating their power – and put all their resources into permaculture and food production instead of military might. When the Stewards decide to invade, therefore, the only means of resistance for San Francisco is non-cooperation and civil disobedience. Of course this meets with violent repression by the invaders, but eventually many of the soldiers of the Stewards’ army realise they could have a better life if they defected to San Francisco. The rest of the army eventually retreats in disarray. In the second book, the rebel soldiers and the people of San Francisco invade Los Angeles.
As I mentioned, you need the army on your side, or at least remaining neutral, for a violent revolution to succeed – otherwise you will be outgunned.
Obviously everyone with any sense would prefer to live and let live – to live a long and peaceful life, and let others do the same. However, the current situation is that there are people living in run-down neighbourhoods with no chance of a job, hence they have two alternatives – turning to crime, or campaigning for justice and equality. They are being imprisoned and killed by an excessively militarised police force, and decades of systemic inequality are taking their toll on people’s health and life chances.
The status quo is intolerable, so some action needs to be taken to change it. There can be no peace until there is justice. If peaceful protest doesn’t work, then the next step is civil disobedience and disruption of goods and services and of the means of production, after that comes destruction of property; and if none of that succeeds, then violent resistance becomes unavoidable.
I think it’s worth examining the theory that you cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house (Audre Lorde). It does seem to be the case that the violent overthrow of a violent regime results in its replacement by another violent regime. Violence begets violence, as has been seen in the Middle East. That’s why the use of the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa prevented an ongoing cycle of mutual violent reprisals. So revolutionaries must be careful not to become the mirror image of what they seek to overthrow, and try to minimise the harm they do.
There is a saying attributed to the Chinese: “Hurt rather than maim; maim rather than kill; kill rather than destroy utterly”. It’s all about limiting the amount of harm caused. But eventually the situation may become so unbearable that the only possible response is “freedom or death” and “by any means necessary”.