Discomfiting as the reality may be, violence remains the driving force of political change.
Humans, and perhaps their prehuman ancestors, have engaged in murder and mayhem, as individuals and in groups, for hundreds of thousands of years. And, at least since the advent of recorded history, violence and politics have been intimately related. Nation-states use violence against internal and external foes. Dissidents engage in violence against states. Competing political forces inflict violence on one another. Writing in 1924, Winston Churchill declared—with good reason—that “the story of the human race is war.”
Some writers see violence as an instrument of politics. Thomas Hobbes regarded violence as a rational means to achieve such political goals as territory, safety, and glory. Carl von Clausewitz famously referred to war as the continuation of politics by other means. A second group of writers view violence as a result of political failure and miscalculation. The title of an influential paper on the origins of the American Civil War by the historian James Randall, “The Blundering Generation,” expresses that idea. A third group, most recently exemplified by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, regards violence as a pathological behavior that is diminishing in frequency with the onward march of civilization. Some proponents of that perspective have even declared that violence is essentially a public-health problem. Whatever their differences, each of these perspectives assigns violence a subordinate role in political life.
But there is an alternative view, one that assigns violence a primary role in politics. This outlook is implied by Mao Zedong’s well-known aphorism that political power “grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Violence, in other words, is the driving force of politics, while peaceful forms of political engagement fill in the details or, perhaps, merely offer post-hoc justifications for the outcomes of violent struggles. Mao corrected Clausewitz by characterizing politics as a sequel to or even an epiphenomenon of violence—a continuation of violence by other means.
Unfortunately, Mao seemed to have an inordinate fondness for bloodshed. After all, he suggested that the quality of a revolutionary should be judged by the number of people he has killed. Yet our revulsion at Mao’s practices should not blind us to the accuracy of his observation. Violence and the threat of violence are the most potent forces in political life.
People say that problems cannot be solved by the use of force, that violence, as the saying goes, is not the answer. That adage appeals to our moral sensibilities. But whether or not violence is the answer depends on the question being asked. For better or worse, violence usually provides the most definitive answers to three major questions of political life: statehood, territoriality, and power. Violent struggle—war, revolution, terrorism—more than any other immediate factor, determines what nations will exist and their relative power, what territories they occupy, and which groups will exercise power within them.
In the case of statehood, there are occasional circumstances when a state may be built and endure mainly through peaceful means. The peaceful divorce of Slovakia and the Czech Republic is an example. This is, however, one of the rare exceptions. As the social scientist Charles Tilly has observed, most regimes are the survivors or descendants of a thousand-year-long culling process in which those states capable of creating and sustaining powerful militaries prevailed, while those that could not or would not fight were conquered or absorbed by others. Similarly, when it comes to control of territory, virtually every square inch of inhabited space on the planet is occupied by groups that forcibly dispossessed—sometimes exterminated—the land’s previous claimants.
The meek, in short, have not inherited very much of the earth. Indeed, the West’s global dominance for most of the past millennium is in large part a function of its capacity for violence.
Within every nation, the composition of the ruling class is generally shaped by the use or threat of what Walter Benjamin called “law-making violence.” That elections have become common in some parts of the world over the past two centuries does not contravene the point. Yes, Barack Obama, America’s first black president, was elected. But the possibility that a black person could join America’s social and political elite was established through sometimes violent protest four decades earlier, to say nothing of the bloody war that freed black people from chattel slavery.
Violence is politically important for several reasons. Two of those—at the risk of stating the obvious—are the dominance of violence as a form of political action, and the fact that violence is, in the end, politically transformative.
First, the issue of dominance: Those willing to use violence to achieve their goals will generally overcome their less bellicose adversaries—overturning the results of elections, negating the actions of parliamentary bodies, riding roughshod over peaceful expressions of political opinion, and so forth. Indeed, the mere threat of violence is often enough to compel acquiescence. Violent groups can usually be defeated only by enemies who use superior force against them.
Occasionally a regime steeped in violence can be successfully confronted via peaceful means, but those are exceptional cases. East Germany collapsed in the face of peaceful protests in 1989 only when its Soviet sponsor, having decided to rid itself of its satellite empire, would not allow the German Democratic Republic to mobilize its feared security services. The Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet actually stepped down after losing a plebiscite in 1988, some 15 years after he had seized power in a bloody military coup. Yet even Pinochet’s departure from office came on the heels of an assassination attempt and five years of violent demonstrations that undermined the Chilean economy, convincing many military officers that it was time to return power to a civilian government.
Generally speaking, force can be defeated only by force. When peaceful dissidents confront tanks, the result is more likely to resemble the Tiananmen Square bloodletting than the fall of the Berlin Wall. This lesson has been learned repeatedly throughout the Middle East in recent years. Peaceful protesters in Libya and Syria were no match for the tanks and machine guns their rulers were only too happy to deploy against them. Only when Libyan insurgents resorted to force backed by NATO airstrikes were they able to defeat the Qaddafi regime. And only through force could Syrian protesters confront the Assad government. In Egypt, President Mubarak was ousted more or less peacefully only because the army calculated that, in the event of violence, it could most easily retain control of the nation by acceding to demands for a new president.
Much attention is given to the putative effectiveness of nonviolence in politics. Nonviolent tactics are often said to have brought an end to segregation in the United States, Communist rule in Eastern Europe, and British rule in India. It’s true that political leaders espousing nonviolence in those cases—Martin Luther King Jr., Vaclav Havel, and Mahatma Gandhi—played important roles. However, the tactics—strikes, boycotts, demonstrations—that leaders like King and Gandhi used were far from nonviolent. Rather, they were designed to provoke violent responses from their opponents. Attacks on apparently peaceful protesters would, it was hoped, elicit sympathy for the innocent victims and encourage politicians to intervene on their behalf.
Consider one of the tactics King used to undermine segregation in the South. King often led peaceful groups into hostile communities where he was confident that local authorities would assault the protesters. Those images helped build support for his cause and for demands that the federal government intervene, by convincing Northern audiences that Jim Crow was brutal, evil, and fundamentally un-American.
One of the most famous protests King organized, in March 1965 at Selma, Ala., is instructive. King picked Selma partly because racial discrimination there and in surrounding Dallas County was so obvious. For example, only a tiny percentage of the county’s registered voters were black, even though blacks accounted for more than half the county’s residents. King was also confident that the state and county political leaders were fools. He expected them to respond with violence and, in doing so, imprint themselves on the collective consciousness of a national television audience as the brutal oppressors of heroic and defenseless crusaders for freedom and democracy. With network cameras rolling, Alabama state troopers viciously attacked marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, seriously injuring many of them in what the news media called “Bloody Sunday.”
Images of the violence unleashed enormous sympathy for the civil-rights cause and helped lay the groundwork for the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which sent an army of federal law-enforcement officials into the South with the power to suppress white resistance to the registration of black voters.
In essence, this nonviolent protest succeeded because the protesters’ allies had an even greater capacity for violence than their foes. But in a case like Tiananmen Square, where protesters had no allies able to deploy or at least threaten the use of force, nonviolent protest will almost always fail.