Book Excerpts: Mythology of Violence
from Part IV: Chapter 1 - The Mythology of Violence
"It is only small groups, who know that they cannot get sufficient popular support, that resort to methods of violence, imagining in their folly that they can gain their ends this way."
- Jawaharlal Nehru
Twelve years after workers in St. Petersburg marched on the Winter Palace, in the century's opening act of nonviolent resistance, the Bolsheviks took control of that storied edifice in the midst of their bloody revolution. But they could not control the armed guards they put in charge of the wine cellar, and the men helped themselves to the Château d'Yquem 1847 (the Tsar's favorite vintage) and sold off bottles of vodka to crowds outside, who became drunk and helped vandalize the neighborhood. At length the wine was poured into the streets, and people drank it from the gutters.
The Russian writer Maxim Gorkii rued this "anarchic wave of plebeian violence and revenge," saying that instead of a social revolution, Lenin and his party had caused a "zoological" outburst of violence. "This is no longer a capital. It is a cesspit," he wrote his wife. Even justice had been perverted: Mobs tried criminals in the streets - when one thief's face was smashed and his eye was torn out, a group of children cheered. "These are our children, the future builders of our life," Gorkii wrote. A revolution unleashing this violence was "incapable of changing our lives but can only lead to bitterness and evil."1
Gorkii saw firsthand what many others in the century refused to acknowledge. But in his day, the European model for liberation from the ançien régime was the French Revolution - and the national anthem it gave to France celebrated "raising the bloody standard." The Bolshevik Revolution effectively internationalized this model, with the auto-da-fé of violence serving as a radical cleanser, sweeping the old order away. Even if the Soviet system afforded no genuine rights or democracy, political change certainly had occurred. So a pernicious if persuasive belief was fostered: that convulsive violence was the handmaiden of removing oppressors.
When Mao Zedong led an army of communist irregulars to victory over China's ruling Nationalists in 1949, that model was embellished further. If violent revolution could establish a "people's republic" in the most populous nation on earth, where would it not work? As Europe's colonies in Africa and Asia were pried loose from imperial control in the 1950s and 1960s, with the Soviet bloc supplying a revolutionary rationale as well as arms to insurgents, a generation of guerrilla warfare ensued. Violence, already seen as an exhilarating hallmark of liberation, was now embraced as a superior strategy for achieving it.
Propagating this paradigm were radical thinkers like Frantz Fanon, a Martinique-born psychiatrist and author, who argued in The Wretched of the Earth that "the naked truth of decolonization evokes for us the searing bullets and bloodstained knives which emanate from it," with liberation coming "after a murderous and decisive struggle." The style of this struggle would be nothing less than crime itself - "gangsters will light the way for the people," Fanon blared. This so beguiled French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre that he bubbled, in a preface to Fanon's book, that only through the "mad fury" of "irrepressible violence" could downtrodden people "become men." It was now a Promethean feat as well as a method of taking political power.2
Seizing that power would be rebels in fatigues coming out of the jungle or down from the hills, and when Fidel Castro did precisely that in Cuba in 1959, only ninety miles from the United States, the cult of the guerrilla was lent further credibility. Then when North Vietnam and the Viet Cong held America at bay for ten years and toppled the U.S.-sponsored regime in Saigon in 1975, victory with violence - even over the most powerful military force in the world - seemed ineluctable. Never mind that violent victors did not always win because they used violence. The revolutionary propaganda of half a century, and exciting imagery of violent insurrections transmitted by the modern media, were irresistible to many latter-day nationalist movements. The Irish Republican Army, the Palestine Liberation Army, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Basque ETA, and other paramilitary crusades embraced violence as if it were a calling as well as a means of conflict.
But calls to arms leave little time for thought. Unlike Gandhi and later leaders of nonviolent campaigns, the twentieth century's avatars of violence never developed a systematic understanding of how their chosen sanctions - firefights, bombing, street battles or terror - were supposed to replace old forms of authority with new opportunities for freedom. Instead, they wove a vague but seductive mythology around the putative power of violence: After violent insurrection was credited as having succeeded in a few prominent cases, it could be advertised as necessary to overthrow any offensive ruler. Once violence was seen as imperative, its destructive costs could be ignored.
Because violence became so widely accepted as a medication for injustice or tyranny, there was no incentive to consider less damaging but also less sensational alternatives for taking power, however effective they had been in the past. The work of nonviolent movements in the twentieth century led to independence for India, equal rights for African Americans and South Africans, democracy in Poland, and the removal of dictators in the Philippines, Chile and a litany of other countries. In each of the conflicts that produced those results, a relationship existed between the means of struggle and the political outcome. But never in the postwar period did a military insurrection or violent coup extend freedom to the people in whose name power was taken.
Power eluded entirely the grasp of many violent movements, and while the mythology of violence often obscured those failures in the world media, they were not overlooked by many popular movements that turned instead to nonviolent sanctions. The collapse of earlier violent uprisings convinced Solidarity to swear off extreme measures in Poland, and the futility of street fighting in South African townships persuaded the United Democratic Front and other activists to use boycotts and strikes to attack apartheid. Armed raids against the white regime may have made more news, but nonviolent action by black civilians made history.
History is ultimately a harsh judge of those who insist on substituting violence by a few for participation by all. The Bolshevik model always had given primacy to a revolutionary vanguard: The people were vital as an emblem of the cause, and once victory was in hand, they could loot the palaces of the old regime. But they were not to be the agent of change, and their empowerment was not its result.
It is not a myth that violence can alter events. It is a myth that it gives power to the people.
1. Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1981-1924 (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), pp. 398, 400-401.
2. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963), p. 30; Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1972), pp. 114, 122.