Noam Chomsky debates with Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, et al. December 15, 1967.
ROBERT B. SILVERS: … Under what conditions, if any, can violent action be said to be “legitimate”? …
NOAM CHOMSKY: My general feeling is that this kind of question can’t be answered in a meaningful way when it’s abstracted from the context of particular historical concrete circumstances. Any rational person would agree that violence is not legitimate unless the consequences of such action are to eliminate a still greater evil. Now there are people of course who go much further and say that one must oppose violence in general, quite apart from any possible consequences. I think that such a person is asserting one of two things. Either he’s saying that the resort to violence is illegitimate even if the consequences are to eliminate a greater evil; or he’s saying that under no conceivable circumstances will the consequences ever be such as to eliminate a greater evil. The second of these is a factual assumption and it’s almost certainly false. One can easily imagine and find circumstances in which violence does eliminate a greater evil. As to the first, it’s a kind of irreducible moral judgment that one should not resort to violence even if it would eliminate a greater evil. And these judgments are very hard to argue. I can only say that to me it seems like an immoral judgment.
Now there is a tendency to assume that a stand based on an absolute moral judgment shows high principle in a way that’s not shown in a stand taken on what are disparagingly referred to as “tactical grounds.” I think this is a pretty dubious assumption. If tactics involves a calculation of the human cost of various actions, then tactical considerations are actually the only considerations that have a moral quality to them. So I can’t accept a general and absolute opposition to violence, only that resort to violence is illegitimate unless the consequences are to eliminate a greater evil.
With this formulation, however, one moves from the abstract discussion to the context of concrete historical circumstances where there are shades of gray and obscure complex relations between means and ends and uncalculable consequences of actions, and so on and so forth. Formulated in these terms, the advocates of a qualified commitment to nonviolence have a pretty strong case. I think they can claim with very much justice that in almost all real circumstances there is a better way than resort to violence. Let me mention a couple of concrete instances that may shed some light on this question. I read in the Times this morning an interview with Jeanette Rankin, who was the one member of Congress to vote against the declaration of war on December 8, 1941, to the accompaniment of a chorus of boos and hisses. Looking back, though, we can see that the Japanese had very real grievances, and that the United States had quite a significant share of responsibility in those grievances back in 1941. In fact, Japan had rather a more valid case than is customary to admit.
On November 6, 1941, just a month before Pearl Harbor, Japan had offered to eliminate the main major factor that really led to the Pacific war, namely the Closed Door Policy in China. But they did so with one reservation: that they would agree to eliminate the closed door in China, which is what we’d been demanding, only if the same principle were applied throughout the world — that is, if it were also applied in, say, Latin America, the British Dominions, and so forth. Of course, this was considered too absurd to even elicit a response. And Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s answer simply requested once again that they open the closed door in China and he didn’t even deign to mention this ridiculous qualification that they had added. Now that qualification was of the essence and had been fought about for the preceding ten years. And it was one of the factors that led to Pearl Harbor and the war. Of course, it was politically impossible after Pearl Harbor for the United States not to declare war; we know how very difficult it is to restrain from striking back, even when you do know that the guilt is distributed. But we’re talking about what is legitimate and what is moral, not what is a natural reflex. And the advocates of nonviolence are really saying that we should try to raise ourselves to such a cultural and moral level, both as individuals and as a community, that we would be able to control this reflex.
Now what were the consequences of striking back and what was our own role in creating the situation in which the violence took place? On December 8, we struck back quite blindly, quite unthinkingly, and I’m not at all sure in retrospect that the world is any the better for it. It’s quite striking to read the dissenting opinion at the Tokyo tribunal of the one Indian justice who was permitted to take part, and who dissented from the entire proceedings, concluding himself that the only acts in the Pacific War that in any way corresponded to the Nazi atrocities were the dropping of the two atom bombs on Japanese cities. A.J. Muste in 1941-2 predicted that we would adopt the worst features of our adversaries, of the object of our hatred, and that we would replace Japan as a still more ferocious conqueror. And I think it’s very difficult to deny the justice of that prediction. So even after Pearl Harbor, I would accept advocacy of nonviolence, not as an absolute moral principle, but as conceivably justified in those particular historical circumstances. In short, there may well have been alternatives to the Pacific War.
A second case, which I guess is the one everybody’s got on their mind, Vietnam, raises interesting and difficult questions in this regard. I’m not going to discuss the situation post-February 1965 but rather the earlier period. From 1954 to 1957 there was large scale terror instituted by the Saigon government, and the reason was pretty simple, it wasn’t just blind and wild. The reason was — this is Buttinger’s theory and I think accurate — that any democratic institutions that would have been created would have been taken over by the Vietminh and therefore it was impossible for the Saigon regime to allow any sort of democratic expression. It was necessary to resort to violence and terror.
Then, in the period from 1957 to 1965, there were two sorts of violence, roughly. There was the mass violence conducted by Saigon and the United States; Bernard Fall estimates about 160,000 killed during that period. And there was also the selective violence, selective terror carried out by the Viet Cong as part of a political program which succeeded in gaining the adherence of a good part of the population. During both of these periods, Americans tended to accept and condone the violence that was conducted by the United States and the Saigon government, reserving their indignation for the much more limited Viet Cong terror.
For my part, of course, there’s no question about justifying the American and Saigon government terror. But what about the harder question, that of the terror practiced by the National Liberation Front? Was this a legitimate political act? The easiest reaction is to say that all violence is abhorrent, that both sides are guilty, and to stand apart retaining one’s moral purity and condemn them both. This is the easiest response and in this case I think it’s also justified. But, for reasons that are pretty complex, there are real arguments also in favor of the Viet Cong terror, arguments that can’t be lightly dismissed, although I don’t think they’re correct. One argument is that this selective terror — killing certain officials and frightening others — tended to save the population from a much more extreme government terror, the continuing terror that exists when a corrupt official can do things that are within his power in the province that he controls.
Then there’s also the second type of argument … which I think can’t be abandoned very lightly. It’s a factual question of whether such an act of violence frees the native from his inferiority complex and permits him to enter into political life. I myself would like to believe that it’s not so. Or at the least, I’d like to believe that nonviolent reaction could achieve the same result. But it’s not very easy to present evidence for this; one can only argue for accepting this view on grounds of faith. And the necessity of releasing the peasant from this role of passivity is hardly in question. We know perfectly well that, in countries such as North Korea and South Vietnam and many others, it was necessary to rouse the peasants to recognize that they were capable of taking over the land. It was necessary to break the bonds of passivity that made them totally incapable of political action. And if violence does move the peasantry to the point where it can overcome the sort of permanent bondage of the sort that exists, say, in the Philippines, then I think there’s a pretty strong case for it.
An interesting sidelight to this issue in the Vietnam situation is a recent Rand Corporation study which claims that the areas in which American control is most firm are the areas in which there has been least disruption of the old feudal social order, where the peasants are docile, where they don’t raise political issues, where they don’t cause trouble and then begin to act politically — which in Vietnam means acting as members of the Viet Cong, apparently.
There’s also a third argument in favor of violence which on the surface sounds pretty abhorrent, but I’m afraid it has a point, from the point of view of the revolutionary guerrilla groups. That is the idea that violence, say by the Viet Cong, will lead to reprisal, often overreprisal, and reprisal will win adherents to the Viet Cong. Of course, that’s what happens, in fact. The first year of the massive American bombardment of South Vietnam, the number of recruits for the Viet Cong increased enormously, tripled at least.
With all these arguments in favor of this type of violence, I still think there are good grounds to reject it. It seems to me, from the little we know about such matters, that a new society rises out of the actions that are taken to form it, and the institutions and the ideology it develops are not independent of those actions; in fact, they’re heavily colored by them, they’re shaped by them in many ways. And one can expect that actions that are cynical and vicious, whatever their intent, will inevitably condition and deface the quality of the ends that are achieved. Now, again, in part this is just a matter of faith. But I think there’s at least some evidence that better results follow from better means.
For example, the detailed studies of Viet Cong success, like those of Douglas Pike, indicate quite clearly that the basis for the success, which was enormous, was not the selective terror, but rather the effective organization which drew people into beneficial organizations, organizations that they entered out of self-interest, that they to a large extent controlled, that began to interlace and cover the entire countryside. Other studies also show that it was the attractiveness of their programs for rural Vietnam that led to the NLF successes, which by 1965 had led in effect to their victory. I think the course of collectivization in China and the Soviet Union can also be instructive. It’s clear, I believe, that the emphasis on the use of terror and violence in China was considerably less than in the Soviet Union and that the success was considerably greater in achieving a just society. And I think the most convincing example — the one about which not enough is known and to which not enough attention is paid — is the anarchist success in Spain in 1936, which was successful at least for a year or two in developing a collective society with mass participation and a very high degree of egalitarianism and even economic success. Its successes, which were great, can be attributed to organization and program, not to such violence as occurred, I believe.
Such examples seem to suggest that there is a relationship between absence of terror and the degree of organization, meaningful programs and spontaneity, on the one hand, and success in achieving a just society on the other. This is a sort of Luxembourgian and anarchist conception, that a just society cannot really be imposed on the masses of people but must arise out of their own spontaneous efforts, guided by their own developing insight. I think that this is a valid conception which has some support from modern history. A final case I’d like to refer to is the anti-war movement in the United States, where I think the argument for nonviolence is overwhelming — so overwhelming that I don’t think I need argue it here.
A couple of days ago I was rather despairingly trying to think of something illuminating that I might say about this subject, and I decided to turn back to some of Tolstoy’s essays on civil disobedience. I’m not sure I found anything very deep there, but I was surprised to discover a note of optimisim that I hadn’t expected, and, since that’s a kind of a rare treasure these days, I’d like to quote a couple of remarks just to relieve the prevailing gloom. He has an interesting essay that was written in 1897 called “The Beginning of the End” [audience laughter] in which he points out that until recently men could not imagine a human society without slavery. Similarly, one cannot imagine the life of man without war. “… a hundred years have gone since the first clear expression of the idea that mankind can live without slavery; and there is no longer slavery in Christian nations. And there shall not pass away another hundred years after the clear utterance of the idea that mankind can live without war, before war shall cease to be. Very likely some form of armed violence will remain, just as wage labor remains after the abolition of slavery, but at least wars and armies will be abolished in the outrageous form, so repugnant to reason and moral sense, in which they now exist.
“Signs that this time is near are many. These signs are such as the helpless position of governments which more and more increase their armaments; the multiplication of taxation and the discontent of the nations, the extreme degree of efficiency with which deadly weapons are constructed, the activities of congresses and societies of peace; but above all, the refusal of individuals to take military service. In these refusals is the key to the solution of the question.”
We live in a society which is the most aggressive in the world, and we live under conditions of almost unparalleled freedom. We therefore have the opportunity to eradicate a good part of the illegitimate violence that plagues our lives and that is destroying the lives of many who are much less fortunate. I think we have no choice whatsoever but to take up the challenge that’s implicit in this prediction of Tolstoy’s. If we do not take up this challenge, we will help to bring about a very different state of affairs which was reportedly predicted by Einstein, who was once asked his opinion about the nature of a third world war and replied that he had nothing to say about that matter, but that he was quite certain that the fourth world war would be fought with clubs and stones.
ROBERT SILVERS: I think that we now will have discussion by the panelists.
HANNAH ARENDT: … I very much agree with Mr. Chomsky’s assertion that the nature of new societies is affected by the nature of the actions that bring them into being. And our experiences with such new societies are, of course, by no means encouraging. It would be really fooling ourselves if we looked upon them with enthusiastic eyes, with which I sympathize but which, I am afraid, simply do not see the truth. As to the Viet Cong terror, we cannot possibly agree with it, just as we couldn’t agree with the terror of the National Liberation Army in Algeria. People who did agree with this terror and were only against the French counter-terror, of course, were applying a double standard…
…I have the impression that many people today — at least a number of people in the so-called New Left — who are against our country’s intervention in Vietnam (as I am, too) would like us to interfere, only in favor of the other side. And though I do not think this would be as horrible as what we are doing now, I definitely think that it would be very wrong indeed…
… American political attitudes are known as “moralistic” all over the world; in this country we seem not to be aware of the seriousness of this reproach. Moralistic attitudes in politics tend to provide moral justifications for crimes, quite apart from leading into pseudoidealistic enterprises which are obviously to the detriment of the intended beneficiaries….