On the Question of Revolutionary Violence in the Socialist Movement
By Wendell Stamps
Let us cut right to the chase, violence is an essential, perhaps the essential, means of revolution. It is inevitable. There is no way around it. Belief to the contrary is based in at best faulty analysis, and at worst pure wishful thinking. Those serious about revolution, that is, the fundamental transformation of all of the most basic social, political, and most importantly economic, relationships that underlay our society, do not have the luxury of such pleasant delusions as those that occupy the fantasies of reformists, moderates, gradualists, and those of similar stripe. To not, among all the other work that is involved, prepare to use and deploy violence in pursuit of revolutionary ends is an egregious abdication of responsibility.
“Revolution”, as an idiom is easy to invoke. But, let us follow out all the logical implications of our rhetoric. We socialists claim that capitalist society, despite its pretensions to ‘democracy’ and ‘liberty’, is in fact a dictatorship of capital and thus an oligarchy of capitalists. Bourgeois democracy is a hollow sham of a mockery, where the congresses or parliaments, are as Marx states, simply the standing committee for the managing the affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. If we take our theory of imperialism seriously, then these same domestic elites are are also rulers of a vast web of international commercial ties, financial systems, and most importantly a military apparatus, used to brutally extract resources from the third world and funnel them to the first. In capitalist society, the capitalists have power and the means to maintain it. Revolution means confronting this power and these means.
Assume that we are correct in the main lines of our analysis of capitalist society: that it is animated by contradictions the working out of which in history inevitably result in moments of crisis; that the interests of the working classes will be much better served by rejecting capitalism and wage-slavery; that a new democratic society based on equality, liberty, tolerance, etc. is possible; that if we fight for this vision of a possible new society we can make it a reality. If a revolutionary movement is successful at convincing people of these things it will by this very act become a threat to the system of power and privilege that forms the base of all capitalists society. And, the greater the success of this movement by purely peaceful and persuasive means, the greater the threat it would pose.
Now, How should we imagine a regime like the capitalist one that is present in most socialist literature will react to the success of such a movement? If we agree that bourgeois liberal democracy is a sham, then we have to agree with Goldman that if voting changed anything they’d make it illegal. And, thus also by extension with Lucy Parsons who admonished us to recognize that the rich will never permit the poor to vote their wealth away. Let us never forget that the real minority whose rights democracy was meant to protect, beginning in ancient Greece, were the rich. The evolutionary and democratic road to socialism is closed, and ruling classes keep that road closed intentionally. The elites of capitalist society are those who, as Kennedy said, make violent revolution inevitable because they make peaceful change impossible. Peaceful change, however, must be made impossible since the bourgeoisie has no interest in giving up power. Democracy is only a useful expedient to the ruling class. They will not allow it to be used to challenge the real bases of their power, because the entire system exists only to provide them with that power.
With the growing success of a revolutionary movement, that is a movement whose very being is an existential challenge to the bourgeoisie, there inevitably approaches a pivotal turning point at which the capitalist regime can longer contain the disruption caused by the revolutionary movement within the bounds of its ‘peaceful’ and ‘democratic’ system of coercion and repression. As a revolutionary movement grows in real power, there comes a point at which the ruling classes face the prospect of losing power. At this point, all notions of democracy and liberty, and rights, and all that claptrap will be tossed aside like so much rubbish, and the hired goons of the ruling class will be mobilized to deploy violence on behalf of the bourgeoisie and the system that both creates and sustains it. This alacrity with which American capitalist elites have resorted to violence to quell out-bursts of working class resistance far less threatening than the hypothetical movement of our thought experiment here should be pro tanto evidence of my point.
The bourgeoisie, as they have abundantly demonstrated in history, will kill you if you actually challenge their power, and often times, they’ll kill you even if you only seem to threaten their power. The history of the labour movement, as well as the socialist and communist movements in the US is proof enough of this. Those who want to abolish capitalist society and replace it with a socialist one pose an existential threat to the bourgeoisie. Revolutionaries who are not preparing to utilize violence as a political tool are preparing only to be martyrs. As Che said in his farewell letter to Fidel and the Cuban people, in a real revolution one wins or one dies. In order to win revolutionaries, serious ones anyway, must be ready to use violence. Not only will it be necessary to defend oneself, one’s comrades, the community that you are building and are thus responsible for, from the attacks of reactionary forces, but, it will also be necessary to take offensive measures against the ruling classes and their forces.
Violence is inevitable of a revolutionary movement is successful at building an alternative society; especially since this alternative must be built from scratch from within the very system most inimical to its development. This violence is made necessary by the reactionary nature of the ruling class, primarily its disposition to retain power, that is to maintain the social institutions of capitalism. To think a revolution could be anything other than a violent confrontation between the forces of the old regime and the forces of the new order is to be blind to the real nature of at least one of these elements. Either one does not correctly understand the capitalists and their system, or one does not understand that a revolution by its very nature is a kind of rupture in the socio-political organism that can only be resolved and overcome violently. A revolution is a struggle over the power to determine the future of that organism, and the fate of all its parts depends on the outcome. It is a clash of irreconcilable interests, and material realities. The existence of capitalism is the enslavement of the working classes. Their liberation is the abolition of capitalism. This fundamental contradiction in material realities can only be a of a violent nature. Non-violent change is merely a petit-bourgeois pipe dream.
One can readily understand why so many on the US left today shy away from many of the implications of their rhetoric of revolution, and insist on all and only non-violence. One can readily understand why pleasant illusions are preferable to hard truths. Most of the problem lies in the anti-communist post-1960s ideological hangover that still distorts the perceptions of broad swathes of the US left. Baby-boomers look back nostalgically, and thus necessarily selectively, at the achievements of the various political and social movements of that era. Their recollections however are often times skewed by rose-colored glasses, or downright misperception. The successes of more militant groups are minimized or ignored; especially insofar as their existence served to legitimize moderates in the eyes of the powerful. The Civil Rights movement scored some phenomenal, epochal, successes. Only to see most of them reversed or undermined over the ensuing decades by political maneuvers and strategic use of the courts.The feminist movement also scored some amazing success. And yet, all these decades later the prominence of the #MeToo movement, as well as the anti-abortion movement, certainly testifies to the idea that progress has been rather limited. The same can be said of the gains made by other movements. Unfortunately, all too many only keep the achieving on reforms in mind and use them as evidence of the efficacy of non-violence. Many Gen-Xers, millennials, and those younger, take much of this narrative of progress achieved through peaceful and non-violent means as gospel; which, of course, makes sense as boomers eventually took over from their predecessors and began using official and unofficial channels to promulgate misleading narratives about social and political progress in the US.
Revolution is more than an idiom we invoke, or an aesthetic we embrace, or a posture we adopt. Revolution is a historical process, that is, a material process. Revolutionary situations unfold based on the objective material interests of the contending parties, and the contradictions between them. To think that the ruling classes of any class-based society will not resort to violence and repression to maintain their power and the system that produces it is the height of folly. It is only logical and prudent then for those who claim to want to radically transform an oppressive, unequal, undemocratic form of society with its opposite to prepare to be able to deploy violence. One cannot become prepared in the moment. When the moment comes, one is either ready or not. And, the consequences of not being prepared are dire, not only for socialists as individuals, but for the communities they claim to want to aid and to defend. Those who take revolution seriously have no option but to take violence seriously, and to be ready to deploy it when necessary.