Violence is the illegitimate authority that begets all other illegitimate authority

So it’s amazing I have to explain this. It should be self-evident. I guess it isn’t, at least not on Twitter:

Violence is the illegitimate authority that begets all other illegitimate authority.

Rulers rely on violence of both the structural and physical kinds, both threatened and actualized, both implicit and explicit. But perhaps some folks hadn’t noticed the police. I guess some folks hadn’t noticed militaries. I guess some folks hadn’t noticed the uneven distribution of resources, a structural form of violence. I guess some folks hadn’t noticed the various forms of scapegoating to be found in nearly all—if not all—societies, another structural form of violence.

It’s funny that some self-proclaimed anarchists don’t recognize this. Silly me: I thought elite violence was the problem.

Michael Bakunin pointed out an error in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who thought that

The first step in the revolution . . . is to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class, to win the battle for democracy.

The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e. of the proletariat organized as the ruling class.[1]

Of this, Brian Morris writes,

Marxists have long debated just exactly what this entailed and whether or not the Bolshevik take-over of State power in Russia in 1917 exemplified what Marx himself had envisaged. But the important point is that Bakunin consistently and criticized this whole conception of revolution. For Bakunin, only libertarian means could be used to create a libertarian socialist society; recourse to State power, whether or not this allowed parliamentary democracy or Blanquist insurrectionary methods, inevitably led to despotism and an end to the revolution. Liberty, as he put it, “can only be created by liberty, that is by mass rebellion and the free organization of the working masses from the bottom upwards.”[2]

In short, the organs of the state cannot be used to dismantle the state. Which, by the way, is just what Emma Goldman found when she went to visit the Soviet Union.[3]

Similarly, violence cannot be used to end violence. Because violence does not address the causes of violence. Violence only imposes someone’s will on somebody else. If peace follows, it is not a genuine peace but a peace of the defeated acquiescing to the victors. Because the victors have taken power over their opponents.

And this is where Bakunin was wrong: He advocated an unthinking “propaganda of the deed,” that is, violence. His violence was a violence that demanded attention, utterly heedless of the kind of attention it would receive.[4] It is, in essence, a claim that any publicity is good publicity, but escalated to claim as much even when human beings are injured or their possessions are damaged.

I would submit that when the message is lost in the deed, the propaganda is no longer propaganda. It is simply a deed: pointless violence. It may generate horror or revulsion. It wins no converts.

And even if it succeeds, such a ready resort to violence fails to answer simple questions: Once the people with guns have seized power, how will you get them to relinquish it? Do you really believe that your people with guns will be holier than the present rulers with guns? How will you otherwise assert authority over your people with guns when the entire point is to dismantle authority? How will you, seriously, avoid replacing one set of thugs (the overwhelmingly wealthy white male ruling class) with another set of thugs (for example, Antifa)?

See the foregoing about Marx and Engels’ misguided notion. And, for that matter, see Goldman’s discussion not of egalitarianism in the Soviet Union but rather of an inverted hierarchy: Yes, the proletariat had been elevated to be elites. But there were still elites. And there was still a hierarchy. Only the faces had changed.[5]

Anarchism is supposed to challenge that kind of authoritarian hierarchy. Violence fails to do that. Violence can’t do that.

However, it is also inconceivable that the rulers can be displaced without violence.[6] Further, an overweaning reliance on nonviolence can amount to complicity with elite violence.[7]

I don’t have an answer to this conundrum. But Bakunin doesn’t either. And certainly not the so-called “anarchists” (Antifa) who advocate violence or impose it even on demonstrations where it is not wanted.

And it is pathetic that I should have to explain this to folks on Twitter.

  1. [1]Marx and Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party” (1848), quoted in Brian Morris, Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom (Montreal: Black Rose, 1993), 121.
  2. [2]Brian Morris, Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom (Montreal: Black Rose, 1993), 121.
  3. [3]Emma Goldman, “There Is No Communism in Russia,” in Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader, ed. Alix Kates Shulman, 3rd ed. (Amherst, NY: Humanity, 1998), 405-420.
  4. [4]Brian Morris, Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom (Montreal: Black Rose, 1993).
  5. [5]Emma Goldman, “There Is No Communism in Russia,” in Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader, ed. Alix Kates Shulman, 3rd ed. (Amherst, NY: Humanity, 1998), 405-420.
  6. [6]My critique of Bill Moyer, with JoAnn McAllister, Mary Lou Finley, and Steven Soifer, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada: New Society, 2001) is that the model fails to offer a way to remove the rulers who obstruct social or environmental progress. It relies on incremental progress occurring over a protracted period of time that does not seriously threaten the elite even on issues such as the climate crisis for which we are very nearly out of time. This isn’t really a fault of the model and the model can be useful as a diagnostic tool. But nonviolent protest has a limited scope of effectiveness and these limitations must be taken into account.
  7. [7]See, for example, the critique to be found in several chapters of Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella II, eds., Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals (New York: Lantern, 2004).

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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