In his 1845 book “The Condition of the Working Class in England”, Friedrich Engels wrote:
“When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another, such injury that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessities of life, places them in conditions in which they cannot live,—forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence—knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual.”
Engel’s abovementioned remarks remain as pertinent today as they were when he wrote them. The Poverty and Shared Prosperity Report 2020 (PSPR2020) estimates that Covid-19 will likely push between 88 and 115 million people into extreme poverty i.e. those living under $1.90 a day. It is important to remember that the International Poverty Line (IPL) of $1.90 a day is ridiculously low — in 2011 in the US, $1.90 would have just been sufficient to buy a cup of coffee. Therefore, the magnitude of the process of existential erosion unleashed by the pandemic is likely greater than those being predicted by various financial institutions. The impoverishment of the majority is not solely due to the negative effects of the pandemic. It is closely linked to the brutal logic of neoliberalism capitalism which has instituted austerity-ravaged health infrastructures, precarized the everyday lives of workers through “flexible” jobs and detached itself from productive economic sectors through frenzied financialization. While innumerable people get mired in the vortex of poverty and endless suffering, billionaires are amassing unprecedented amounts of wealth, creating lagoons of affluence and privilege surrounded by oceans of mass misery.
What is happening today because of the fusion of epidemiological and economic crises is merely a stark manifestation of the endless murders being committed by capitalism for hundreds of years. Through accelerated capital accumulation and expanded exploitation, capitalism has cold-bloodedly reduced the state of existence to a process of rotting whose final destination is a harrowing death. This “structural violence” of capitalism is not an inadvertent byproduct of a perfectly functioning economic regime; it is an inseparable internal mechanism with the help of which capital satisfies its insatiable reproductive needs. Under neoliberalism, capital’s economic exigencies have displayed themselves in ever more acute forms like permanent unemployment, job insecurity, cuts in public spending and dispossession as a socially ravaged system desperately attempts to stave off economic crises.
When confronted by the massive structural violence of capitalism, the subalterns inevitably search for alternative ways of living which would shield them from the ruination wreaked by the existing system. This conscious experience of the objective oppressiveness of capitalism leads to social conflicts between classes generated by antagonistic relations of production. These instances of class struggle act as subjective interventions in the structural conflict between forces and relations of production. As the forces of production develop, the relations of production, which once had facilitated their expansion, slowly began to impede further development. Through the direct action of subaltern subjects, the contradiction between the centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor is finally solved, leading to a revolution.
Understanding Bourgeois Democracy
While a revolution need not necessarily be violent, historical circumstances under capitalism have operated in such a way as to render violence the only viable method to overthrow the ruling class. Even after the establishment of parliamentary institutions and a “democratic” state, revolutionary violence has continued to act as a last resort for those who are the victims of globalization and necropolitical neoliberalism. In an 1878 article written by Karl Marx on the Anti-Socialist Law in Germany, we can find rough explanations regarding the conflictual presence of revolutionary violence and bourgeois democracy:
“An historical development can remain “peaceful” only so long as no forcible hindrances are placed in its path by those holding power in society at the time…the peaceful movement could become a “violent” one on encountering the resistance of those interested in the old state of affairs…In fact the government tries to crush by force development which is inimical to it although legally invulnerable.”
The “forcible hindrances” are constituted by the state under capitalism. The capitalist state is not an autonomous entity working outside the logic of accumulation; it a highly complex terrain of class struggle embodying the conflict between accumulation and legitimacy. On the one hand, the political power of state is incapable of independently organizing production — property is private and the productive sectors of the economy are in the hands of private companies to whose activities the state has to continually react. In so far as the state is unable to construct a self-supporting productive base and depends on revenues from surplus extraction, its capacities are indirectly determined through private productivity and profitability. This means that politicians and officials have to strengthen capital accumulation to be able to exist within the state. On the other hand, the ruling dispensation brought to power through electoral means has to maintain hegemony within the citizenry if it does not want a crisis of legitimacy to destabilize its tenure.
The conflict between accumulation and legitimacy is maintained and balanced by using coercive power against those political forces which raise issues that cannot be structurally accommodated within the limits of capitalistic democracy that only allows for insufficient and gradual changes. When the subalterns become cognizant of this structural limitation of bourgeois democracy, they are compelled to utilize revolutionary violence to regain agency and put forth their demands in a visible way.
In the current conjuncture, the internal disjunctions of bourgeois democracy are increasingly coming under stress under as the subalterns articulate new demands which are opposed to the murderous mechanisms of capitalism. In the US, for example, the George Floyd uprising — one of the largest movement in US history — highlighted the racist veins of capitalism and explicitly foregrounded the structural violence of capitalism. Since the American rebellion expressed demands which transcended the delimited area of bourgeois democracy, it was met with heavy state repression. Apart from the US, sustained protests have also occurred in Colombia where the concentrated anger of the subalterns against neoliberalism coalesced around the issue of police brutality — identified as one of the constitutive components of a wider picture of injustice. Like the Black rebellion in America, the Colombian protests, too, were violently subdued through the sheer use of force.
Revolutionary Violence: The Ethical Dimension
As class struggle continues to intensify across the world, a theory of revolutionary violence which is able to build the foundations of politico-ethical hegemony for the Left will likely form. If a coherent theory of revolutionary violence is formed, leftist forces worldwide will get access to a tool which is capable of breaking the cycle of parliamentary violence and consolidating a new constellation of social forces. The application of revolutionary violence against class enemies has always acted as an addendum to politics and has historically been invariably interwoven with and subordinated to careful efforts aimed at forming ideological bases of counter-hegemony within the womb of capitalist society.
In the last instance, revolutionary ideology acts as the primary factor behind the overthrow of capitalism. To use the words of Fidel Castro,
“Just ideas have greater power than all the reactionary forces put together… ideas are and always will be the most important weapon of all…There is no weapon more powerful than a profound conviction and clear idea of what must be done. It is with these kinds of weapons, which do not require enormous sums of money, but only the capacity to create and transmit just ideas and values, that our people will be increasingly armed. The world will be conquered by ideas, not by force”.
While giving a speech to the Hanover Congress of the Social Democratic Party of Germany in 1899, Rosa Luxemburg had remarked that the proponents of revolution “are the last to take up violent means, the last to wish a brutal, violent revolution on ourselves…such matters do not depend on us, they depend on our opponents”. Violence, therefore, has been a tactical necessity forced upon the proletariat by counter-revolutionary offensives throughout modern history. And while violence has certainly been one functional aspect of revolution, it is also a mode of struggle having ethical ramifications i.e. it is itself constitutive of the new humans that emerge from the revolutionary process. In so far that revolutionary violence has an ethical dimension, a moral framework has often been provided for its exercise. The basic structure of this moral framework can be outlined through two points.
Firstly, revolutionary violence has been performed strictly in keeping with the moral goal of destroying capitalism and correspondingly cleansing the world of structural violence and gratuitous deaths. This means that violence itself is ethically molded by the goal of revolution and is exercised to prevent further violence. In the concluding sentences of his essay “Tactics and Ethics”, Georg Lukacs had expressed this point eloquently: “only he who acknowledges unflinchingly and without any reservations that murder is under no circumstances to be sanctioned can commit the murderous deed that is truly – and tragically – moral.” From this statement, it is quite clear that revolutionary violence can be carried out only when individuals realize that the brutalization and degradation of human life under capitalism has to end. When revolutionary violence is conceived as such, it becomes an endeavor to replace moral narcissism —preservation of the purity of one’s soul at the expense of humanity as a whole — with a collectivist struggle for the destruction of a social order which constantly violates the right to life of an individual.
Secondly, since revolutionary violence has been guided and regulated by the moral ideals of socialism, it also has an internal code of ethics which balances the ends (socialism) with the means (violence). The unification of means and ends has been necessary in so far that revolutionary violence has a direct bearing on the subjectivities of the individuals produced through class struggle. Furthermore, if violence is not mediated by ethical codes consonant with the goals of socialism, the process of struggle is emptied of its political meaning and deforms the goal itself. As Herbert Marcuse has said:
“No matter how rationally one may justify revolutionary means in terms of the demonstrable chance of obtaining freedom and happiness for future generations, and thereby justify violating existing rights and liberties and life itself, there are forms of violence and suppression which no revolutionary situation can justify because they negate the very end for which the revolution is a means. Such are arbitrary violence, cruelty, and indiscriminate terror.”
In order to understand the historical, ethical edifice of revolutionary violence, we need to differentiate between specific types of destruction. In Albert Camus’ play “The Just Assassins”, a leading character, Dora, asserts: “even in destruction there is a right way and a wrong way – and there are limits”. The right way is constituted by prefigurative methods of violence which act as embryonic expressions of the future. Through these prefigurative practices, a politico-ethical fabric of hegemony is woven which allows the subalterns to struggle in the present and at the same time experience the socialist future. Slavoj Zizek accurately outlines the contours of such a prefigurative struggle:
“Revolution is experienced not as a hardship over which the future happiness and freedom already cast their shadow – in it, we are already free even as we fight for freedom; we are already happy even as we fight for happiness, no matter how difficult the circumstances. Revolution is…its own ontological proof, an immediate index of its own truth.”
According to Norman Geras, ethical practices within the field of revolutionary violence comprise primarily of (1) the distinction between direct agents of class oppression and everybody else and (2) a notion of minimum force: “one’s weapons must be capable of stopping enemy combatants, which in the given circumstances involves killing them; but they should not, beyond this, seek gratuitously to accentuate suffering.” Camilo Guevara — Che Guevara’s son — reiterates similar points and writes that “revolutionaries, even if they are being massacred sadistically, should invoke the use of force only when absolutely necessary, and even then, should never accompany it with cruelty. This idea is directly proportional to the condition of being a revolutionary”. When these kinds of ethical arrangements are integrated into revolutionary violence, a form of class struggle is produced which contributes towards the development of a subjectively enriching process of socialist humanization.
With the exacerbation of material conditions and rising subaltern resistance, the legitimacy of bourgeois democracy is constantly coming under threat. This tense period of disequilibrium is similar to past times, when revolution through the politically circumscribed use of violence has been one among the many tactics of revolution. The rationale behind the tactical use of violence was explained by Marx as thus: “the governments are opposed to us: we must answer them with all the means that are at our disposal…We must declare to the governments: we will proceed against you peaceably where it is possible and by force of arms when it may be necessary.” While revolutionary violence is underway in many parts of the world, it has not typically made its way into the imperial core. However, as capitalism’s contradictions come to a head, we are seeing more and more people flooding the streets, even within the US. Though revolutionary violence has historically functioned as a tactic, it also has moral aspects which need to be ethically structured to construct socialist hegemony among the subaltern classes. In the contemporary period, if it is to come about organically in response to capitalism’s structural violence, it can be visceral in nature (and thus misplaced at times) or ethically-informed, and thus utilized as a part of a broader organized movement to replace capitalism with socialism.