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By Any Means Necessary

There’s a lot of argument about whether it is legitimate or ethical to use violence to overthrow an unjust system, and what counts as violence.
This argument all too often ignores the fact that the unjust system is already violent, denying life to, or restricting the life chances of, whole groups of people. Systemic, structural inequality is violence, as both Rhyd Wildermuth and Alley Valkyrie (among others) have pointed out. It shortens people’s lives through poverty, ill health, stress, suicide, despair, violent crime, and unjust killings by police. The killing of queer people and people of colour does not exist in a vacuum: it is part of a system of injustice, silencing, and a repressive legal system.
A recent essay on Gods & Radicals, When the Gods Call for Violence, examined the possibility of gods calling for the violent overthrow of an extremely unjust system: the system of slavery in Haiti, where the violent repression perpetrated by the slaveholders included flogging, burning alive, and other horrors. The huge death toll of the rebel slaves was a big price to pay for liberation from that violent system, but it had got to the point when violent uprising (and the possibility of dying in that uprising) was preferable to violent subjugation. I find it impossible to suggest that the rebel slaves acted wrongly: their sole choice was freedom or death. From a tactical and pragmatic point of view, the slaves vastly outnumbered the slaveholders, and therefore had the advantage of numbers, even if they didn’t have as many weapons.

The Pragmatic Revolution

On the same day as I read that article, I came across another piece of writing entitled Freedom or Death. It was Emmeline Pankhurst’s speech about being a suffragette. She said that things had reached such a desperate state for women that for them too, the choice was freedom or death. Consider that in the UK, women could own no property till 1871, and were themselves considered the property of their husband or father; that marital rape was legal till 1991, and until 1918, women had no vote to try to redress any of these injustices at the ballot box: therefore they had to try other means. However, women would be at a disadvantage compared to men, who were physically stronger, and had more weapons at their disposal. Therefore, the methods of resistance available to women consisted of demonstrations, damage to property, and (on at least one occasion) disrupting the means of production. They cut the telegraph wires between the London Stock Exchange and the Edinburgh one. Once they started getting arrested, their means of resistance was the hunger strike: a desperate, difficult, and debilitating form of resistance. Eventually the tide of public opinion turned against the force-feeding of hunger-striking suffragettes, the Cat and Mouse Act (which detained them, released them when they became too weak from hunger striking, and then re-arrested them when they were well again), and other forms of repressing their protests, and the vote was eventually granted to women.
Similarly, the British had more firepower than the movement for independence in India, so the movement used non-violent resistance in the form of civil disobedience. There was a tax on salt and the production of salt was controlled by the government – so the campaigners marched to the sea and panned their own salt. It is very likely that the reason the British authorities gave in to the demands for independence was because they feared a violent uprising – but again, they had to balance the desire for control against the tide of public opinion.
Looking at the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960s, it is very clear that the government feared a violent uprising – not necessarily because they thought they would lose, but because of the ensuing public relations disaster if they brutally crushed an uprising, and the disruption to “business as usual”. This may have forced the government to cede some ground to the civil rights campaigners. The civil rights movement also used the tactic of disrupting the system: boycotting the segregated buses would have had quite a big economic effect. They also blocked highways, and very much disrupted “business as usual”. Non-violent doesn’t only mean protest marches – it can involve damage to property, blocking highways, cutting power cables and communication lines, and conducting sit-ins on private property. Non-violent resistance and civil disobedience are always met with violent repression on the part of the state, but it is harder for them to justify this against civil disobedience and destruction of property.
The tactics used by the Black Lives Matter movement are very similar to the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement; and the Civil Rights movement also got criticised for disrupting things, labelled as ‘too extreme’, and so on. How is it “extreme” to demand that the people who should be protecting you stop killing you, and recognise that your life matters as much as theirs? Last time I looked, there wasn’t a death penalty for shoplifting, having a broken tail-light on your car, carrying a toy plastic gun, or just generally existing while Black.
As to what tactics the BLM movement should be using – I would say that the situation is desperate enough that it makes sense to go for whatever works. There have been centuries of slavery, segregation, lynching, vote-rigging, redlining, sundowner towns, racial profiling, Jim Crow, imprisonment, subprime mortgages, mistreatment and exploitation. However, the militarisation of the police in the US is such that armed resistance on the part of BLM would immediately be crushed, so it probably makes sense to use other tactics (the goal here is achieving their aims, and not getting slaughtered because they would be massively outgunned, rather than pleasing the hand-wringing white “liberals” who claim that BLM is “behaving badly” compared to the Civil Rights movement). What might work is an increase in civil disobedience, disruption of business as usual – hit ’em where it hurts, in the wallet. That is how the boycotts of South African produce during apartheid worked, and how the 19th century boycotts of slave-produced sugar and cotton worked. The U.K. government has just made it illegal for public bodies such as universities and local councils to boycott goods from Israel, which suggests that the boycott was working. Again, just to be clear, I’m not saying that BLM shouldn’t use violence because it is immoral, but because it is impractical (as far as I can see). Mere acquiescence in the status quo is obviously not an option, because people are being killed at an astonishing rate by the very people who are supposed to protect them.
People also criticised the Civil Rights Movement for its non-violent direction action, and Martin Luther King responded:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Conditions for a Successful Uprising

A successful revolution requires the army to be on the side of the revolution. The reason that the Russian revolution succeeded was because the soldiers formed soviets and acted to overthrow the Tsar. The recent Turkish coup (if it wasn’t a fake coup created by Erdogan to consolidate his power) might have worked if the entire army had sided with the coup.
Turning to a fictional example, compare the two novels The Fifth Sacred Thing and its sequel City of Refuge by Starhawk. (Spoiler alert! Skip to the next paragraph to avoid spoilers.) In the first novel, San Francisco has become a peaceful egalitarian co-operative permaculture-using society, while Los Angeles has been taken over by violent militarised fundamentalists (the Stewards). San Francisco drove the Stewards out twenty years before the time period of the novel – before they had succeeded in consolidating their power – and put all their resources into permaculture and food production instead of military might. When the Stewards decide to invade, therefore, the only means of resistance for San Francisco is non-cooperation and civil disobedience. Of course this meets with violent repression by the invaders, but eventually many of the soldiers of the Stewards’ army realise they could have a better life if they defected to San Francisco. The rest of the army eventually retreats in disarray.  In the second book, the rebel soldiers and the people of San Francisco invade Los Angeles.
As I mentioned, you need the army on your side, or at least remaining neutral, for a violent revolution to succeed – otherwise you will be outgunned.

Ethical Considerations

Obviously everyone with any sense would prefer to live and let live – to live a long and peaceful life, and let others do the same. But violent repressive fascists and capitalists who are happy to get rich at the expense of others don’t care about others having happy and peaceful lives. This is evident from the current situation, where there are people living in run-down neighbourhoods with no chance of a job, hence they have two alternatives – turning to crime, or campaigning for justice and equality. They are being imprisoned and killed by an excessively militarised police force, and decades of systemic inequality are taking their toll on people’s health and life chances.
The status quo is intolerable, so some action needs to be taken to change it. There can be no peace until there is justice. If peaceful protest doesn’t work, then the next step is civil disobedience and disruption of goods and services and of the means of production, after that comes destruction of property; and if none of that succeeds, then violent resistance becomes unavoidable.
I think it’s worth examining the theory that you cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house (Audre Lorde). It does seem to be the case that the violent overthrow of a violent regime results in its replacement by another violent regime. Violence begets violence, as has been seen in the Middle East. That’s why the use of the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa prevented an ongoing cycle of mutual violent reprisals. So revolutionaries must be careful not to become the mirror image of what they seek to overthrow, and try to minimise the harm they do.

“Perceive the way of nature and no force of man can harm you. Do not meet a wave head on: avoid it. You do not have to stop force: it is easier to redirect it. Learn more ways to preserve rather than destroy. Avoid rather than check. Check rather than hurt. Hurt rather than maim. Maim rather than kill. For all life is precious nor can any be replaced.”
-Master Kan

It’s all about limiting the amount of harm caused. But eventually the situation may become so unbearable that the only possible response is “freedom or death” and “by any means necessary”.

We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.

18 Comments »

  1. I like that you included ethical considerations, because violence always begets violence. Haiti is used as an example, but how good are things in Haiti even today? I have a friend from there whose parents sold him and his brother to someone else, who eventually sold him to a US couple. What does that sound like to you? So any means necessary may not be any means necessary.

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    • Excellent point! But the problem with Haiti and many other countries around the world is slavery is more than just a physical concept. Even though the people may be free from blatant oppression the systems are still controlled by the slave masters.

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    • The Wikipedia article on “By any means necessary” suggests that if violence is unnecessary, then it should not be resorted to.

      The consideration here, I would suggest, is on whether violence can ever be seen as necessary – and that calculation is up to each individual conscience.

      If thousands of people could be saved by killing one person, would you do it?

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    • In the meantime, we are still waiting for violent governments to slowly fade away… and while they still exist, resistance will always be required.

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  2. Thanks for this thoughtful piece. I think a question on the mind of anybody in the struggle for social and environmental justice is ‘how far would you go?’ My main work is sharing poems and stories on-line and in my local communities and I’ve only ever been involved in peaceful protests. I think at a push I’d disrupt goods and services but I’m not sure if I’d destroy someone else’s property even if they were a capitalist. (With your mention of Emeline Pankhurst, a suffragette local to Preston, Edith Rigby comes to mind. She set fire to Lord Levenhulme’s second home on Rivington Pike). I feel there’s something innately wrong with violence – whether it’s toward people or things. If I was forced into a position where it was freedom or death I don’t know what I’d do. At this point I think I’d rather die than use the means of my aggressors, although of course I wouldn’t know for certain unless that situation occurred.

    I wholly agree with: ‘I think it’s worth examining the theory that you cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house (Audre Lorde). It does seem to be the case that the violent overthrow of a violent regime results in its replacement by another violent regime. VIOLENCE BEGETS VIOLENCE.’

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    • Violence against property seems completely different to violence against people.

      Destruction of an individual’s home, or a painting such as the Rokeby Venus, wouldn’t have been my personal choice of protest, but I would quite happily have cut telegraph wires.

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  3. There is a strange example of non-violence in this article. The cutting of the telegraph lines by the suffragettes was an act of violence against the capitalists and aristocrats who ruled Britain. I know we are supposed to champion non-violence and generally it can work. IF, and only if, your dealing with people who have a conscience, who feel some empathy. If they don’t, well, why should they care. Especially now with more than ninety percent of the media being controlled by six companies.
    Non-violence as a strategy works if you have people who care and who are informed about what is going on. The media is now mostly in the hands of propagandists and their children, the advertisers. The protesters of the past, violent and not, are now advertising gimmicks and slogan generators for a neo-liberal / neoconservative system. A system that doesn’t want you to rock the boat, to tip it over, to be a “trouble-maker.”
    An example of this, of some age, and of interest to some is the HIV/AIDS protests of the 80s and 90s. Peaceful protesting got them nowhere. The government, and the media, ignored them.
    But the die-ins,
    the spreading of cremains on the Capitol and White House lawn,
    the daring takeover of government buildings.
    These things got people’s attention and got results.
    The Neo forms want you to be peaceful, because you can be put in protest zones and ignored.
    Violence is not THE solution, nor is it A solution, but it gets attention and gets results at times. Unless you’re a terrorist, or can be made to look, act, or seem like one because you’re “different.”

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    • I suppose by some definitions of violence, the cutting of the telegraph wires could be seen as violent, in that it affected the livelihoods of the capitalists whose trade was affected, but that’s a lot less violent than the fact that by depriving women of the vote, men were preventing them voting to strike down bad laws or obtain better ones to correct the lack of legal rights and protections for women.

      The capitalists losing a few pounds would affect them a lot less than the women losing custody of their children upon divorce, not owning their own property upon marriage, not being allowed to earn their own money, being unable to divorce violent husbands, not being able to prosecute for marital rape, and so on.

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  4. I have a legal and nonviolent proposal for action to delineate for anyone who has the time to leisurely engage with me one-on-one in confidence. It’s not something to spell out with a megaphone (here). Rather, it begs to be discussed, with the kind of ample time set aside for the obligatory, in-depth Q&A required to seriously evaluate any new idea, not just the “plan for action” that I want to propose. Interested trustworthy parties can contact me at aptosnews@gmail.com. Perhaps we can set up a private meeting with you and trustworthy others. — In solidarity, Ox

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    • thanks for your comment. Discussion by email is an unusual step, which will be why no-one has emailed you – they probably fear spam – but if you are publishing an article, I look forward to reading it.

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  5. I appreciate this. Revolutionary violence is self-defense against the ongoing, ceaseless, ambient, and invisibilized violence of day-to-day oppression. And yeah – asking for reforms won’t, can’t, and never has made them happen. That’s simply not how the real world works; liberals writing letters to the editor benefits no one but the newspapers. Of course, this gets at a deeper issue: militant protest (violence, the threat thereof, property destruction, nonviolent disruption, etc) creates a situation where the ruling class figures it’s worth it to make a few concessions if it makes the disruption stop. So, the disruption stops, things are better for a while, and the ruling class stays in power (and, of course, starts chipping away at those concessions as soon as it can get away with it). How do you break through the self-limiting nature of the cycle – how do you get the ruling class out of power entirely?

    Of course, as the OP gets at, in the end it comes down to revolutionary violence of one sort or other. When the ruling class ends up feeling an existential threat, they get extravagantly violent (as Salvador Allende, to take one example, discovered). At that point, either we defend ourselves or die. But what I really appreciate about the OP is that it expresses some stuff that most justifications for revolutionary violence don’t: you need to get the support of active-duty military people, or you’ll be crushed and/or contained, and violence can be necessary, but it should never be celebrated. Like, as a communist, I do think that there will eventually be some degree of violence if the movements I’m part of ever start to get anywhere meaningful. But that’s not a good thing – inevitable, sure, but still horrific and destructive. Anyone who fantasizes about “armed struggle” as a positive good needs to get themselves grounded in the actual experiences of people who’ve encountered war firsthand. But, at the same time, that doesn’t make pacifism any more defensible. After all, the violence of oppression is gruesome and never, ever ceases until it’s forcefully stopped (even though, again, the culture normalizes it and hides it from view; that’s the ruling class’s propaganda machine at work).

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  6. Non-violence is racist, sexist, anti-LGBT, and pro-Patriarchy. At least, so Peter Gelderloos concludes in a short book he wrote called “How Non-Violence Protects the State.” The book along with others and many articles of varying length is available for free download in a variety of formats at theanarchistlibrary dot org. For the record, no, I don’t agree with everything Peter wrote, but he makes some good points. Namely that condemning those who use violence to defend themselves from state-sponsored violence is tacitly conceding that the state ALONE has the right to be violent. Also non-violence, as a moral high ground reeks of privilege and people wanting to protect said privilege. Check it out, and the huge number of other works that can be downloaded individually or collectively.

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    • I agree that condemning those who use violence to defend themselves from state-sponsored violence is tacitly conceding that the state ALONE has the right to be violent.

      Perhaps I should have stated that explicitly, but that was the assumption on which this article was based.

      Also worth stating that non-violence doesn’t mean not resisting the state and its violence, as the numerous examples I have explored in the article show.

      My point was to show that if you want your revolution to succeed, you’d better get the army on your side, or work out a way to neutralise the army, or the revolution will be crushed.

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  7. True enough, Yvonne. You, often, need the army on your side. It’s also true that being the army helps. Look at all of the benefits to workers of the anarchists of yore. We have 40 hour, 5 day work weeks with a minimum wage, some measure of health benefits including worker’s compensation. None of these existed for workers until the anarchists took things in hand and were violent. Yes, they formed protest marches, carried signs and more, but they were willing to use violence. And had state-sponsored violence used against them, repeatedly. Assassinations, suborned jury trials, etc. Wow.

    It’s even happening now in Rio at the Olympics. The people who were dispossessed of their homes to make way for the Olympic Village are protesting. And some are using violence, there are reports of spectators being robbed of their cash and valuables by some of the homeless who had lost their shacks to the need of Rio to have the ultra-expensive facility that is the Olympic Village. Is it right? No, but it wasn’t right for them to be violently expelled from their homes either.

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    • I am convinced that the Olympics do much more harm than good.

      One can hardly blame the evicted homeless people for trying to even up the score.

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