Saints and Deacons: The Role of Violence in the Struggle for Freedom

Since the dawn of the struggle against capitalism, the question of the relationship between violence and resistance has occupied the minds of radicals, class enemies, and the masses alike. Some have argued that violence should never be used. These pacifists see violence as contrary to their goal of a world without violence. In the first section this essay, I want to continue the critique of prefigurative politics that I began laying out here and developed here. I would like to argue that, although it is true that socialists seek a world free of the systemic violence that characterizes class society, this does not mean that we should swear of violence in a tactical sense. The new society is a very different thing from the means to achieve said new society. If we want to win, we must discard moral absolutes and see the question of violence for what it really is: a tactic.

The first response by radicals is always to point out the hypocrisy of the political establishment when it comes to violence. The ruling class loves to wring its hands over burnt-down convenience stores, but says nothing about the millions killed via drone strikes, hunger, poverty, and homelessness. How is it that stealing baby formula from a store is considered violent, but denying healthcare to the people who work in that store is not? Why are talking about broken windows when we should be talking about broken backs?

This hypocrisy, while glaring, is no mere character flaw. The Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky pointed this out when he wrote, “the appeal to abstract norms of nonviolence is not a disinterested philosophical mistake, but a necessary element in the mechanics of class deception. The ruling class reserves for itself the sole monopoly on the right to the use of all means of violence, but denounces in angelic tones the violence of the oppressed” [1]. They are perfectly fine with drones, and tanks, and bombs, and targeted assassinations, but the second an occupying Israeli soldier is killed by a Palestinian, the ruling class is up in arms. This is perfectly rational for the ruling class, in the same way that riots on the part of oppressed groups are rational for these groups. By claiming that violence is strictly the province of rioters, looters, and the like, the ruling class paints its actions as necessarily non-violent, and therefore necessarily more humane. Both the ruling class and “principles pacifists” identify violence as an anti-human undertaking. Rather than motivating the ruling class to swear off violence, this definition causes them to redefine violence to suit their aims. In effect, upholding nonviolence as a principle lets the ruling class off the hook.

No action, in and of itself, possess an essential moral character. Take, for example, pulling the trigger of a firearm. This is a mute gesture. The fact of this gesture’s innate muteness can be seen in the way the media characterizes police violence as “officer-involved shootings.” This passive phrasing denotes the fact that a shooting, in the sense of the discharge of a weapon, is not immoral on its own. The ruling class seizes upon the moral blankness of shootings to cover up the fact that the shootings committed by police are actually violent. The morality of a shooting is dependant upon context: is the target a rabid dog who is about to harm a child, or a black man running away from a person who was trained to kill him?

Our stance on violence as a moral tabula rasa has two lessons: one, we should avoid elevating the tactic of nonviolent resistance to the level of absolute principle, since moral absolutes are a weapon of the ruling class.

At the same time, we should also avoid adopting an adventurist approach that fetishises violence as the end-all, be-all of socialist revolution. It is very dangerous to make a virtue out of a necessity. As the Russian revolutionary Joseph Stalin put it in an interview with HG Wells, “you are wrong if you think that the Communists are enamoured of violence. They would be very pleased to drop violent methods if the ruling class agreed to give way to the working class. But the experience of history speaks against such an assumption” [2]. This point cannot be stressed enough: violence is a tactical consideration, based on a rigorous historical analysis rather than moralistic assumptions about the innate goodness or badness of the people.

What socialists want is a world without violence. We understand that the vast majority of violence in the world, at least that which takes place on a large scale, is the product of capitalism: the system that allows a tiny minority to control the vast wealth produced by the immense majority. From the ravages of colonialism and chattel slavery at its birth to the furies of its wars as a result of its highest stage, imperialism, it causes untold misery, suffering, and death. Capitalism starves a person to death every four seconds. In the United States alone, a hundred fifty workers, mostly poor people of color, die every day as a result of unsafe working conditions. Roughly eight million children die of preventable diseases each year due to inadequate access to medical equipment. Capitalism, from its beginning, was and is a violent system. As Marx put it over one hundred years ago, “capital comes dripping from every pore with blood and dirt. It must be continually drenched in new blood all the time” [3]. Capitalism is not only violent, capitalism requires violence to perpetuate its existence. Socialists want a world free of this violence, and we want it passionately.

In order to have a society without violence, we must have a society without classes, exploitation, and oppression. But the capitalist class will never willingly give us this world. History has shown that those who accumulate vast amounts of wealth and power will do anything to hold onto it, up to and including genocide. If this is the case, and I think it is, then we must be prepared to use violence against the ruling class in our struggle for a world free of violence.

With this in mind, I would like to provide a critique of the pacifist philosophy, which says that we can have a nonviolent world simply by refusing to participate in violence. To do this, I want to look at two prominent historical examples of pacifism in action: the Indian independence movement under Mohandas Gandhi and the Black Freedom Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Finally, I want to counterpose both of these examples to what I see as the correct understanding of violence, which, to reiterate, is as a tactical consideration. Violence, though permitted, must be subservient to the greater goal of a social revolution with a mass character.

Indian anti-colonial fighter Mohandas Gandhi is probably one of the most important theoreticians of nonviolent social change. Gandhi promoted a syncretic blend of vegetarianism, occultism, and Hinduism is often held up as the purest form of a nonviolent activist, yet even he claimed that he would nuke Europe if he thought it could liberate his people. Despite being treated as an icon of nonviolence, even Gandhi (at least at one phase of his life) understood that violence was permissible in the fight for liberation [4].

It should also be noted that Gandhi’s tactics of nonviolence were not passive. Gandhi and his comrades organized civil disobedience actions, symbolic arrests, and marches that demonstrated an organized, disciplined, and courageous response to the viciousness of British Colonialism. In this sense, Gandhi’s methods (if not Gandhi himself) deserve praise. These nonviolent tactics are often effective at galvanizing popular support for radical movements. They can draw more people into struggle [5].

However, it would be a mistake to see the Indian anti-colonial movement as a monolith of marches, hunger strikes, and so on. The path to Indian independence involved the use of a variety of different tactics, from mass strikes to riots. It was not a homogenous movement led entirely by the “barefoot saint.”

At key points, Gandhi’s extreme adherence to nonviolence actually held back the movement. At the victory of independence in 1947, Gandhi was being pushed to what might be called the political margins of the movement. He argued against strike actions and often cut off disobedience campaigns prematurely when he sensed the masses beginning to strain under his moralistic theses. His close ally, who would later become the first Prime Minister of an independent India, put it this way: “After so much sacrifice and brave endeavor…I felt angry with him at his religious and sentimental approach to a political ” [6]. The ally of Gandhi, therefore, was already beginning to formulate a critique of moral absolutes and the principle of pacifism, even as the movement itself raged on.

In 1946, the Royal Indian Navy mutinied against their officers due to complaints of racism and issues regarding food rations. This was a mass action based on solidarity between Hindu and Muslim soldiers among the rank and file. Despite the enormous potential of this action, Gandhi and the Indian National Conference condemned not only the mutiny by the soldiers, but also a walk-out by 300,000 workers in Mumbai who struck in solidarity with them [7]. Gandhi put his pacifism ahead of the actual struggle for liberation, demonstrating the danger of morally absolute positions.

It is important to note that Gandhi was actually in favor of the Indian caste system. He did not want to end class society, the true purveyor of violence. Instead, he wanted to appeal to the “soul-force” of the oppressor [8]. This often resulted in him talking frankly deplorable stances on tactical matters, such as arguing that Jewish people should commit mass suicide to “shame Hitler” [9]. He was also an advocate for the rights of the untouchable caste, in a certain, very limited sense. He championed welfare campaigns but refused to support their basic economic demands of land reform. Bring the poor roads and wells, bring them charity, but do nothing about their fundamental position in society. Here, we see another problem with nonviolence as an end in itself: it focuses on appealing to the oppressor rather than asserting the humanity of the oppressed [10]. The pacifist argument is that the oppressor should give into the demands of the oppressed because the oppressed played by the rules, rather than because the oppressed are just as human as the oppressor. This moralistic argument, in the case of Gandhi, actually resulted in holding back the Indian masses.

The other historical example often provided for the merits of nonviolence is Martin Luther King, Jr and the black civil rights movement more broadly. Gandhi looms large over this period as well. His political method came to America through the theologian Howard Thurman, who met with Gandhi in India in the 1930s [11]. Thurman was the dean of Boston University, where King received his doctorate, and attended school with father [12]. Thurman also connected James Farmer (founder of the Congress for Equality) with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international organization formed after World War One to train pacifist cadre. It closely followed, studied, and propagated the politics of Gandhi described above [13].

The tactic of  civil disobedience was utilized in a variety of ways throughout the civil rights movement, through boycotts, peaceful marches, and sit-ins across the American south. The principle of nonviolence meant that when the freedom fighters of the movement were attacked by police with dogs, fire hoses, and the baton, there was a general expectation that the participants would not retaliate [14].

This strategy was largely effective, in the sense that it galvanized the moral outrage of the American people, unsheathing the brutality of American racism. Most people have a general conception that police brutality is undesirable, particularly when utilized against nonviolent protestors. While this perception is not necessarily where we would like the masses to be, latching onto it had the effect of making King’s program more palatable for the general public [15].

The tactical vanguard of the movement was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who radicalized students inspired by their nonviolent actions, particularly sit-ins. It was this group that played a pivotal role in dismantling de jure segregation in the South [16].

Like the example of the Indian independence movement, we see that the tactic of nonviolent civil disobedience had the effect of rallying the masses around the movement, and thus increasing its chances of success. These examples illustrate that we ought not repudiate nonviolent tactics as a whole. The problem is with nonviolence as a principle, not as a tactic.

However, the purity of the nonviolent ideal was tested by the real hurdles the movement faced. White reaction began to learn that blatant violence directed at the protesters themselves only polarized support against their racist cause. They turned to a strategy of assassination and terror that had been employed in the region since Reconstruction. SNCC activists who began organizing in the South faced violent reprisal from white reactionaries, including murder. It is crucial to note that this reprisal often took place outside of official actions. When SNCC activists left actions to return home, they would be shot or firebombed [17]. This is another problem with nonviolence: it proposes a distinction between the planned action and the “private sphere” that simply does not exist. Even if police fear the repression of protesters on camera, there is no guarantee that they will not assassinate the protesters once the action is over. Nonviolence as a principle would hold that activists cannot retaliate anywhere, inside or outside of formal sites of struggle. This idealist concept is at odds with the material realities of revolutionary work. The police and the ruling class do not respect the boundaries between struggle and private life, so neither should we.

Luckily, self-defense against racists was not a new occurrence. As the student activists began to organize outside the campus on which they started, they found that there was a long tradition of armed struggle in the area. People in the community, despite SNCC insistence and their own discomfort with guns, stepped up to guard the civil rights activists. SNCC field chair secretary Charles Sherrod describes an event that took place when he went to stay with a woman named Momma Dolly. He says, “Momma Dolly had this big shotgun. I tried to talk her out of guarding me, but she said ‘baby, I brought a lot of these white people into this world, and I’ll take them out of this world if I have to.’ Sometimes, no matter what, she would sit in my bedroom window, leg propped up with that big ol’ gun. She knew how to handle it better than I did” [18].

The story of civil rights in the South is full of moments like this. While guns were not central to the marches and the sit-ins proper, they were there under the pillows and in the trunks of the freedom fighters. Many supposedly nonviolent activists, from Medgar Evers to Fannie Lou Hammer carried arms for their own protection [19]. Dr. King’s own home was described as an “arsenal” [20]. He applied, for, and was denied, a concealed weapons permit [21].

Armed defense in the South, however, existed outside of the protective sphere. There were a number of groups, many semi-clandestine, who worked as an organized, armed defensive wing of the movement and the people. The most notable was perhaps the Deacons of Defense, who formed in Louisiana as an armed association for the explicit purpose of protecting workers, organized meetings, and sometimes the peaceful marches themselves [22]. Their founding was encouraged by James Fenton, himself a member of the nonviolent CORE organization [23].

The reason for this founding was described by Richard Haley, the CORE’s Southern Director, as being instantiated because “protected nonviolence is apt to be more popular with the participants than unprotected” [24]. The Deacons of Defense, which at its height had hundreds of members and chapters all across the south, protected, with violence, the nonviolent organizers. Even those leaders and activists who were formally committed to nonviolent tactics understood the need to protect themselves with the threat of violence. No activist, not even King, adhered to pacifism as a dogma. Indeed, during the 1966 march on Selma, organized by King and the SNCC, armed Deacons marched beside the protesters, on the lookout for racist interlopers [25].

King himself never changed his nonviolent stance. He still preferred the method, but he developed a different context for it. He couched his critique of violence in the practical difficulties of the movement, due to its provoking greater repression. Despite King’s preference for nonviolence, he began to understand it as a tactical question rather than a moral one [26].

King was seeking to broaden these ranks of his movement, and he saw nonviolence as the best way to do this. In his own words, “by nonviolent resistance we can…enlist all men of good will in our struggle for equality” [27]. Politically, the strategy was successful not only in drawing the masses into the struggle, but also in splitting the Democratic Party on the national level. Because King and his supporters remained nonviolent, it became difficult for the northern Democrats to distance themselves from the movement [28]. This is precisely because, as members of the ruling class, they treated nonviolence as an absolute moral good. They were backed into a corner: if they supported King, their grip on power would be lessened. If they decided not to support King, however, the public would realize that peace was not really on the agenda. It was either give up some of their power or reveal to the masses that they were self-interested hypocrites. If they did this, the masses might come to realize that nonviolence was not the only path to a better world [29].

Ultimately, the ruling class chose to cede some of their power to King’s movement. Democrats like Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were pressured to support civil rights legislation that combatted segregation and expanded black voter participation [30]. The nonviolent strategy was successful not only in drawing ever broader layers of the masses into the struggle against white supremacy, but also in pressuring and exposing the machinations of the ruling class.

Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin argued that the symptoms of a revolutionary situation would come about when the masses knew that they did not have to live in the old way, but also when the ruling class could not go on ruling in the old way [31]. Although King’s movement did not bring about revolution, it did bring the country closer to meeting these two conditions. The takeaway here is that nonviolence, in conjunction with other tactics, can be a revolutionary weapon.

The broader the movement became, the more confident the masses grew. With this confidence came the radicalization of ever more oppressed stratas of the black community. Young people, poor people, domestic workers, and sharecroppers-people who had justified and deep-seated grudges-became active in the movement. The movement passed over, in a dialectical sense. Quantitative change lead to qualitative change [32]. The more participants the movement gained, the more the actions went beyond the boundaries of nonviolence as a principle.

In Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, when King lead his “Project Confrontation,” an attempt to shut down the commerce of the whole city through mass activity, it actually lead to rioting. In fact, it prefigured the violent urban rebellions that would take place in the North in the summers to follow [33]. It is an instructive irony that the very success of King’s nonviolent strategy lead to a multi-summer stretch of urban rioting across the entire country. King himself expressed some support for these actions, writing that “a riot is the language of the unheard” [34].

The nonviolent strategy that King advocated was practical at a particular time and in a particular place: the struggle for civil rights in the Jim Crow South in the 1950s and early 1960s. As soon as that struggle began to spread geographically, around the whole of the United States, the strategy began to crumble. Black people as a whole began to struggle against not just the worst aspects of American racism, but against the fundamentally racist institutions at the heart of the entire national government. The politics of nonviolence was revealed to be inconsistent at this juncture. Many people were very invested in maintaining the systemically racist institutions that the movement was beginning to attack. It was not enough to simply change the minds of these people. They had to be confronted directly. Their privileges had to be called out, identified, and smashed, in many cases by force. The larger a movement becomes, the more resistance it is bound to run into, the more class enemies it is bound to encounter. Many of these enemies will occupy positions of power or privilege. No matter how moral we are, those in positions of power will never willingly give them up. It is in this context that violence becomes a viable tactic.

This is what Malcolm X meant when he critiqued Martin Luther King, Jr. by saying “you can’t change [the white man’s] mind…[He] has lost all conscience” [35]. He was appealing to a mass movement that had begun to understand that the ruling institutions and conventions of American “democracy” were fundamentally unequal, and could not be changed through civil dialogue. Everyone who could be convinced by the sight of nonviolent protesters being massacred by police had already joined the movement. It was time to deal with those who had a material interest in perpetuating inequality. They could not be convinced nonviolently.

Black people in the North faced unequal job conditions, housing, and education, but not state-sanctioned segregation as in the South [36]. This pointed northern blacks towards the redistribution of wealth and power: issues that dealt with both race and class. Malcolm understood that the class conflicts his movements were engaged in, owing to their deeply-entrenched nature, could only be settled antagonistically. Still, he did not fetishize violence. Like King, he understood it as a tactical question. This is why he counseled, “be peaceful…but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery” [37].

In the world of moral absolutism, we are stuck in a tragic bind: we must choose between peace and self-determination. But in the real, material world, we must understand that morality is relative to space, time, and social class.

To hammer the point home, we ought to go back in time to the Civil War. Lynd, the great American Radical, part of the Freedom School movement, said that he wanted to find an alternative to the violence of the Civil War [38]. Abraham Lincoln, however, took a different view. In his second inaugural address to the Union, he said that it was possible that every drop of blood drawn by the lash would need to be repaid with the sword [39]. By virtue of the fact that the oppressed live in a violent society, violence must be used to liberate them. Indeed, as radical educator Paulo Freire puts it, “there would be no oppressed had there been no prior situation of violence to establish their subjugation” [40]. Violence is necessary to create and sustain oppression. It follows, therefore, that it will also be necessary to end oppression. In enacting violence against their oppressors, the oppressed are in fact asserting their dignity, their right to be treated like human beings instead of property.

The point is not to glorify violence, as I made clear in the introduction above. But we must understand violence as a necessity, another stage of struggle, one step on the path to liberation.

Violence and nonviolence both complement and influence one another. Martin Luther King, Jr could not have lead his nonviolent campaigns had it not been for the violence of the Civil War, in which black slaves forced themselves into Union armies, one hundred years earlier.

From the above examples, we should draw two lessons. It is important to say again that nonviolent tactics can help draw more people into struggle and garner mass support. The world that socialists wish to see is a deeply democratic one, involving the power and imitative of the working class as a whole. We cannot win democracy for the working class if the revolution itself does not involve the broadest possible numbers of that class. Nonviolent tactics, then, do have a place in the struggle for freedom.

We should, however, avoid putting nonviolence on a pedestal. In the real world, our principles will be challenged by difficult situations. We must refrain from enshrining these principles as immutable moral absolutes. If we want to win a world free of systemic violence, we must treat the use of violence as a tactical and political question rather than a moral one.

  1. Quoted in “Pacifism and War” by Paul D’Amato. International Socialist Review, July-August 2002.
  2. “Marxism Vs. Liberalism: an Interview with HG Wells.” Works, Vol. 14. Red Star Press Ltd., London, 1978. Marxists Internet Archive.
  3. “Chapter Thirty-One.” Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One. Marxists Internet Archive.
  4. Quoted in Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase Volume Two. Payarelal. Navajivan Publishing House, 1956, p. 17.
  5. Gene Sharp (2005). Waging Nonviolent Struggle. Extending Horizon Books. pp. 50–65.
  6. Quoted in George Francis Bailey, God-botherers and Other True Believers: Gandhi, Hitler, and the Religious Right. Berghahn Books, 2008  p. 151.
  7. Sen. History Modern India. New Age International. p. 202.
  8. SN Uma Majmudar (2005). Gandhi’s pilgrimage of faith: from darkness to light. SUNY Press. p. 138.
  9. Gandhi & Zionism: ‘The Jews’ (November 26, 1938). Jewish Virtual Library.
  10. Miki Kashtan, “Gandhi and the Dalit controversy: The limits of the moral force of an individual.” Waging Nonviolence. Feb. 27, 2012.
  11. Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenhardt, “When Howard Thurman Met Mahatma Gandhi: Non Violence and the Civil Rights Movement.” Beacon Broadside: A Project of Beacon Press. October 02, 2014.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Gross, David M. (2014). 99 Tactics of Successful Tax Resistance Campaigns. Picket Line Press. pp. 15–17
  15. Ibid.
  16. Bond, Julian (October 2000). “SNCC: What We Did”. Monthly Review. p. “Legacy”.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Quoted in Charles E. Cobb, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. Basic Books, 2014. p. 169.
  19. Ibid, 94.
  20. Ibid, 254.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid, 202.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid, 202.
  25. Ibid, 241.
  26. Bruce Hartford, 2004. “Two Kinds of Nonviolence.”
  27. Ibid.
  28. SA Samad – ‎2009  “Nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement” JFK Institute, 2008.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. VI Lenin, “The Symptoms of a Revolutionary Situation” Marxists Internet Archive.
  32. Charles D. Lowery; John F. Marszalek; Thomas Adams Upchurch, eds. (2003). “Birmingham Confrontation,” The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Civil Rights: From Emancipation to the Twenty-1stCentury. 1 (Second ed.). Greenwood Press. p. 47.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Kail Holloway “9 MLK Quotes the Mainstream Media Won’t Cite,” AlterNet, December 16, 2015.
  35. Quoted in Manning Marable and Leith Mullings, Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal, 2009. p. 411
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Staughton Lynd, Andrej Grubacic, Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History, 2008. p.234
  39. Ibid.
  40. Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition p.55

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