26 October, 2020

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A Lankan’s Contribution To The Debate On Political Violence & Revolt

By Nick Hewlett

Prof Nick Hewlett

Recent events on the world stage have led to a renewed interest in the question of political violence. To take some of the most obvious examples, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, and the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, show that violence in countries and regions characterized by profound political upheaval is a highly topical issue. Wars, revolts and resistance will no doubt continue to be part of the foreseeable future, not least because of the continued shift of global economic and political power away from the United States and towards China and elsewhere, and the substantial shifts in geopolitical power these changes will bring with them. Amongst the many ethical issues raised by changes involving violence are those that apply to the violent overthrow of an existing regime, and/or more broadly an existing socioeconomic and political order. The ethical questions raised in such contexts include: Under what circumstances (if any) is violence justified? Who is justified in pursuing violence in revolt? If and when violence is legitimate, what are the limits to permissible violence? Do some radically different ends justify extreme violence? Does the nature of violent revolt affect the nature of the goal? Is pacifism or quasi-pacifism an appropriate means of effecting change in some (or all) circumstances? None of these questions is new, and responses to them are bound to be complex, but these are the sort of questions which will remain relevant for many years to come and will continue to require a framework for debate.

In an important and concrete contribution to the debate on violence and revolt, [Dayan] Jayatilleka examines the ethics of violence of Fidel Castro. Via a detailed study of Castro’s writings, speeches and revolutionary practice, Jayatilleka suggests that the Cuban leader resolved the disagreement between Sartre and Camus regarding violence and morality; Sartre was critical of Camus’s disapproval of the violence of the oppressed. Whether, or to what extent, Jayatilleka is right in identifying Castro as the bearer of a correct moral stance on this question is less important for our purpose than what in effect becomes his (Jayatilleka’s) position on the ethics of violence, which is concerned with the actual practice of revolt. It might be argued that in light of the human rights record of the Cuban regime since the early 1960s, Castro cannot be held up as a moral arbiter of the ethics of violence in revolt. It might also be argued that any code of ethics that was adhered to during the 1958 revolution has been overshadowed by the abuse of human rights since the revolution. However, for the sake of highlighting Jayatilleka’s contribution we will bypass this debate.

Castro, writes Jayatilleka, is the ‘‘modernist, rational, internationalist; fighting full-scale wars when necessary, but never resorting to targeting of non-combatants, physical torture and execution of captives’’. Castro’s main contribution to Marxism is the introduction of an ethical and moral dimension, which is ultimately based on Christianity. The moral superiority of the freedom fighter is ‘‘cultivated not by abstinence from violence as in the case of Gandhi, nor by the tactical use of violence as in the case of Mandela, but by conscious restraint in conduct, methods and targeting within the practice of armed rebellion, liberation war and revolution’’.

Jayatilleka then suggests three attitudes to violence: there are those who contend that violence is always wrong, those who defend it if it is in pursuit of a just end, and those who argue that not only should the end be a worthy one but that the means of achieving this end must be subjected to ethical scrutiny. It is the latter attitude to violence that he considers the correct position and which according to him Castro embraces. More specifically, a bad use of violence is ‘‘terrorism targeting unarmed, non-combatant civilians; torture and arbitrary execution of prisoners; executions within the organization; and lethal violence against political prisoners’’. One of the merits of Jayatilleka’s work is precisely that it does not shy away from specifics. He argues convincingly that Sorel, Fanon, and Sartre did not go beyond:

“the understanding of the effect of dehumanization of the violence of the oppressor on the oppressed and the effect of humanization on the oppressed of the exercise of counter-violence, to an understanding of the effect of dehumanization of violence on the oppressed (which the Gandhians and other pacifists understood), when used by them without limits. There is no dialectical understanding of the violence of the oppressed, encompassing its contradictory aspects, both liberating and dehumanizing. This, however, was a concern of Camus, though his attempt to resolve the contradiction was unsatisfactory”.

Jayatilleka’s point is that Castro’s approach to violence is superior in that it combines morality and ethics into a discourse and practice of freedom fighting, in what becomes a synthesis of utopian-idealist socialism with both the scientific approach of Marxism and the praxis of Leninism. It is not necessary to endorse Castro’s views and practices, and certainly not in their entirety, in order to recognize in Jayatilleka’s argument a most welcome contribution that advances the debate on the relationship of classical Marxism and its legacy and the ethics of violence in revolt. At the very least, it defines a framework for discussion and offers highly concrete examples in an area where one is in danger of remaining either in the realm of abstractions or in the pragmatics of cases as they arise, without a middle way that offers an ethics based on both principle and practice.

Modern treatments of the ethics of violence in revolt fall into three broad categories. First, there are those who are best described as pacifist of quasi-pacifist, associated with Gandhi in particular, but also with certain feminist writers. The second group is that which, broadly speaking, seeks to justify violence when it is used to defend liberal democracy (which group, I suggest, includes Waltzer and to some extent Arendt). Finally, there is the group that attempts to justify violence when the ultimate ends of a violent campaign are viewed as just (i.e., the ‘‘just ends’’ approach, with which Sorel, Fanon, Marx and Engels are often associated).

My basic claim is that the exploration of the ethics of violence in revolt should combine the salient elements of all three approaches, particularly those of the first and the third approaches. My contention is that certain aspects of classical Marxism provide a useful framework within which to develop an ethics of violence in revolt of this kind, which is appropriate for the twenty-first century.

I argue that in constructing a framework for the study of the ethics of violence in revolt we should look at concrete examples of revolt in order to temper the more idealized approach. The balance of these two elements is perhaps the greatest challenge for any ethics of violence, and is found in Jayatilleka’s fascinating examination of Castro’s thought and practice. His approach is an attempt to combine warm stream and cold stream theories of radical change, when applied to actual historical change, which is always more complex, and often harsher and more unpalatable, than debate in the abstract.

What I am arguing for is therefore both an interpretation and an augmentation of Marx and Engels that allows for an eclectic use of the work of thinkers who postdate them. Rather than interpreting the Marxist view of violence mainly as it is expressed in the Sorel-Lenin-Fanon/Sartre lineage, which often concentrates on justified violence as a form of self-defence, we should add and combine other, less obvious, influences. These might include not only the authors mentioned above but also, for example, the theory and practice of Gandhi and in particular his notion of nonviolent struggle through satyagraha. Another would be Martin Luther King and his practice of nonviolence, and also Malcolm X, who held that in the struggle for civil rights some violence was inevitable. This might seem impossibly eclectic, but only, I suggest, because new, even hybrid forms of thinking are urgently needed when it comes to the use of violence in revolt.

*Prof Hewlett is at the Dept of French Studies, University of Warwick, UK. This article is excerpted from his essay ‘Marx, Engels, and the Ethics of Violence in Revolt’, in The European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms, Routledge, 2012

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    Dear Prof. Neither Marxism Nor Capitalism has given eternal solution for human problems and paved the way to end violence. You and me live in a world of self-contradictions and we live in a paradoxical world: On one hand, We are boosting of human advancement in science, and technology and human rights commissions(many in names) yet, we live in a world that is torn part by violence, wars and trouble: it is ironical that we have more human rights groups and even more human rights are violated today: This is the so called civilised world we live in today: old days of old civilizations would have been far better than ours. At least they did have luxuries of modern science and technologies we have today. We used all these luxuries in the destruction of humanity. Man has learned to fly like a bird in the sky and swim like a fish on sea and yet, he has not learned to how to live in peace with humanity. Something is missing with humanity: You may call it love, kindness, humanism. good parenting, spirituality, religious guidance or some thing else. But some thing is definitely missing and it is duty of us as human beings to rediscover that puzzle. Dr Rifai UK

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      Nas,
      if you read the world history, the bible, the American, Indian, Chinese, Japanese and other histories you will see that there were many wars fought then than now.

      Fo instance in Sti Lanka, it was ruled by many kings occupying different kingdoms, while fighting for power and for crowns within and without with other kingdoms at the same time.
      For ex. King Kassapa killing his own father and later got killed by his own brother are a few.

      Also there are some kings who had ruled for one day, one week and one month etc later kicked out by their own ministers and Kings. Also read the type of torture kings gave for wrong doers which are animalistic.

      Therefore I think there is no difference between now and then, but now it still safer to live than then even with the modern warfare in place.

      I think finally all comes to automatic balance and control of population by the nature through different means.

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    Dear Jayantha . I agree with you that in old days war was a norm and you could say it was a way of life to fight for domination: each king fought one another to expand his land and country . I agreee with that notion yet,I disagree with you to say both wars are same, destruction that a modern man make is more harmful and dangerous.
    How many millions were killed in ww1?
    How many millions were killed in www11?
    How many millions were killed by Hitler?
    How many millions were killed in Vietnam war?
    How many millions were killed in Gulfwar?
    How many millions were killed in war on terroir ?
    List go on countless
    People in old days were killed in thousands but today there are being killed in millions. Today if war break out between USA and North Korea it could kill millions if they both use nuclear warheads.
    Old day wars were fought by swords / arrows/ knives
    Modern wars are fought by nuclear war heads? Which are more destructive and more dangerous?

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    I posted this over at Groundviews because Dayan thought I was “taking the mickey” by rai8sing a quizzical eyebrow at the phrase “ethical violence”.

    Dear Dayan,

    I am at a disadvantage because I have not yet been able to get hold of your book and am relying on reviews of it.

    The phrase my brain could not cope with was “ethical violence”, used by Kalana Senaratne in the Groundviews review of your book.

    Reading Nick Hewlett on Colombo Telegraph I have copped on, because he uses the phrase “the ethics of violence”. That seem to me somewhat different and my feeble brain can compute that.

    Nick Hewlett’s comments provide food for thought.“The ethical questions raised in such contexts include: Under what circumstances (if any) is violence justified? Who is justified in pursuing violence in revolt? If and when violence is legitimate, what are the limits to permissible violence? Do some radically different ends justify extreme violence? Does the nature of violent revolt affect the nature of the goal? Is pacifism or quasi-pacifism an appropriate means of effecting change in some (or all) circumstances? None of these questions is new, and responses to them are bound to be complex, but these are the sort of questions which will remain relevant for many years to come and will continue to require a framework for debate.”

    Although most ethical systems enjoin one not to kill, and I am personally averse to violence, I can understand that passive resistance may not always be effective. I wrote a series of articles in The Nation about the democratic deficit in most of the world. There are places where the parliamentary and civil society route is just not going to work for oppressed minorities. A couple of obvious examples that spring to my mind are the apartheid states of Israel and the old South Africa.

    Less extreme examples would be the inability of ordinary voters in EU countries like Ireland or Italy to influence their fate beyond voting out the scoundrels who ruined their lives. The ejected scoundrels continue to live well on the taxpayers’ funding and the new men are unelected eurocrats.

    Many Sinhalese would deny that Tamils had any grievances. More moderate people might question whether the violence unleashed by the LTTE was proportionate to the grievances.

    Similarly, in Northern Ireland, there is no doubt that Catholics suffered severe discrimination. Was the violence unleashed by the Provisional IRA proportionate to the injustice suffered?

    I have written on Groundviews about the cult of martyrdom among Irish and Tamil nationalists. See: http://groundviews.org/2012/03/17/martyrology-martyrdom-rebellion-terrorism/

    I would welcome your comments on that article.

    If we accept that violence is inevitable in some situations, we may be being realistic but it does rather let the genie out of the bottle. I might be able to understand why Martin McGuinness in his particular circumstances as a young man in Derry might come to the conclusion that he had no other option but to join an organisation that was prepared to use violence. Someone, I respect very much regards McGuinness as a friend who is today doing good work in the interests of peace and reconciliation.

    However, if we are to talk about “ethical violence” or “the ethics of violence” we have to take note of how violence is used. Attacking military targets is one thing. What about the ethics of lobbing grenades into Israeli pizza parlours full of children? What about hacking to death Muslims at prayer?

    Some foreign tourists and a woman pregnant with twins were blown to giblets in Omagh. They did not choose to die for a united Ireland. How many Irish people would be willing to die for a united Ireland? How many would agree with Bernadette Sands McKevitt that it would be worth dying to object to the arrangements making up the Good Friday Agreement which brought a measure of peace which most of “the people” so deeply craved?

    The Real IRA has few members and zero popular support, but it still has bombs and it still kills innocent people. It gives itself permission to do this by calling on the example of previous martyrs.

    I remember in the heady days of my youth in the late 60s reading Marcuse, Fanon and Regis Debray. I shared the intellectual atmosphere also breathed by middle class revolutionaries who thought they were justified in killing civilians because the system was oppressive and “the state” was “violent” in many ways. The system is even more oppressive today. How helpful , how ethical would it be to kill civilians?

    Hewlett quotes Dayan as saying a bad use of violence is ‘‘terrorism targeting unarmed, non-combatant civilians; torture and arbitrary execution of prisoners; executions within the organization; and lethal violence against political prisoners’’.

    How do you put a lid on that?

    Can’t help thinking about Isaiah Berlin on ends and means.

    Hewlett concludes: “This might seem impossibly eclectic, but only, I suggest, because new, even hybrid forms of thinking are urgently needed when it comes to the use of violence in revolt.”

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