Art by Yousef Amairi

Art by Yousef Amairi
the struggle continues

June 01, 2014

Herbert Aptheker: "Revolution, Violence and Democracy" (fr: International Publishers, 1967)

Source: The Nature of Democracy, Freedom, and Revolution. International Publishers, 1967. Chapter 6, pp. 89-107.

We conclude, therefore, that violence is not an organic part of the definition of the process of revolution, and that the conventional presentation which equates violence with revolution is false. And we conclude that the conventional view which places the onus for the appearance of violence in connection with basic social change upon the advocates of such change is altogether wrong; where violence does accompany revolutionary transformation, it owes its origin and takes its impulse from the forces of reaction which seek to drown the future in blood.

A. Violence

Probably the single most common stereotype in connection with revolution is to equate it with violence. Examples of this abound; the reader will recall that the dictionary definition of revolution began with the words: A sudden and violent change in government. Equally common is the posing of peaceful change as contrasted with revolution; for instance, in Kenneth Neill Cameron's introduction to the Selected Poetry and Prose of Shelley, the editor summarizes certain of Shelley's views this way: 'In regard to the existing situation in England the thing to do is to work first for the reform of parliament, peacefully if possible, by revolution if necessary.'


But the equating of violence with the nature and process of revolution is not correct. Violence may or may not appear in such a process, and its presence or absence is not a determining feature of the definition. How, then, should one view the relationship of violence to revolution?

First, there is the historical view, the view conveyed in Marx's famous observation that "force is the midwife of every old society which is pregnant with the new." This observation, however, is not advocacy; it is observation. It is taking account of the fact—certainly a fact when Marx was writing—that hitherto social changes sufficiently fundamental to be called revolutions had not occurred peacefully. It is, also, an observation which rules out the adoption of pacifism as an ideology suitable for a revolutionary, but it most certainly does not constitute the advocacy of violence by the revolutionary himself.1

That it does not, follows from an examination of the full content of the historical observation anent the relationship between violence and revolution. That observation insists that where violence has accompanied revolutionary culmination, it has appeared because the old class, facing elimination due to social development, has chosen to postpone its internment by resorting to the violent suppression of the challenging classes and forces. The source of the violence, when it appears, is in reaction; it is in response to that challenge that resistance may be offered and if such resistance is successful then the revolutionary process may come to fruition.

Exactly this course marks the American Revolution, where the colonists pled peacefully for a redress of grievances and for the "rights of Englishmen." These demands were resisted and the rights were not granted by the Crown. As the demands persisted, and the organized strength of the movement making those demands grew, the Crown finally moved, in 1775, to the massive, forcible suppression of the entire movement. It was for this purpose that the King ordered ten thousand troops to Boston, blockaded the port, and sent detachments of those troops, bayonets fixed, to arrest the leaders of that movement. The use of force came first as an expression of policy by the Crown; the revolutionists turned to force as a last resort and as an act of resistance to the prior-offered force by reaction. The resistance finally was successful and so the revolution proceeded. Or, as in the case of modern Spain, the effort to secure in that suffering country a republic with an advanced bourgeois-democratic system was met by the organized force and violence of feudal and fascistic groups both in Spain, and in Germany and Italy. There, the movement toward significant social change was met by reactionary violence and the resistance to that violence was not successful; hence, Franco's counter-revolutionary assault succeeded, and Spain's crucifixion continues.

Where one has a complete absence of any possibility of struggle for social progress other than through violence, he has an altogether different situation. This, for example, was true in the slave south in our own country. The slaves were forbidden all rights and were, in fact, the property of the master class. They were forbidden to learn to read and write; they were forbidden to own anything or go anywhere or do anything without the express permission of the masters. In such cases, individual resistance could only show itself in flight or being "uppity," as the masters put it, or in desperate acts of violence. And in such a system, organized struggle could only take the form of strikes, sabotage, or—and this was quite common—conspiracy and insurrection. But even here, the point I am insisting upon in connection with the relationship between the revolutionary process and violence is not really refuted, for in cases such as chattel slavery, the use of violence still originates with reaction. For in slavery, one has a system that is based upon the exercise of naked violence or the clear threat of its instant use. In slavery, the slaves were forcibly held in subjection, and the system of slavery was begun by the forcible enslavement of the original victims.

The slaves in an almost literal sense were what John Brown called them, that is, "prisoners of war." Here again, then, the actual source of the violence and the persistent policy of employing violence characterize the exploitative and oppressing class, not the class seeking basic social change.

A similar situation prevails with naked colonial domination and suppression and with fascism: with, for example, the condition that existed in Hitler Germany. There monopolists ruled by making war upon their own population and by the systematic imprisonment, torture, and annihilation of hundreds of thousands of those opposing fascism. Here, too, monopoly ruled not only by constant violence within, but also by a policy of constant and violent aggression without. In such a situation, where violence appears among those seeking real change, it once again appears only in response to the systematic resort to violence by the forces of reaction.

On this question of social change and violence, and the connection between this and such systems as slavery and fascism, the Russian theologian-philosopher, Nicolas Berdyaev, offered a relevant view. In his Slavery and Freedom (N. Y., 1944, Part 1, Chapter 2) one may read:

    "Habitual time-hardened slavery may not appear to be a form of violence, while a movement which is directed to the abolition of slavery may appear to be violence. The social reformation of society is accepted as violence by those to whom a certain habitual social order has presented itself as freedom, even though it may be terribly unjust and wrong. All reforms in the position of the working classes call forth from one side of the bourgeois classes, shouts about the violation of freedom and the use of force. Such are the paradoxes of freedom in social life."

Since the source of violence rests with reaction, whether or not it will appear depends not so much upon the will to use it but rather upon the capacity to use it. This is why, in the history of Marxism, there have been differing evaluations, at different times, as to the possibilities of the peaceful or relatively peaceful transition to socialism. In the latter part of the 19th century Marx thought this might be possible in the United States, Great Britain, and Holland, largely because of the well-developed bourgeois-democratic systems prevailing there and the relative absence, then, of highly concentrated military establishments. With significant shifts in the situation, such estimates altered, as when, during World War I, and its intense militarization, Lenin asserted that peaceful transition was impossible. But it is to be noted that this was an estimate arising out of a consideration of the strength of reaction and its readiness and capacity to use violence. When this same Lenin thought he saw, in April 1917, a profound decay in the strength of reaction in Russia, he projected the possibility then, in Russia, of the advance peacefully to socialism.

After the February bourgeois-democratic revolution, Lenin insisted that actually two centers of power—"The Dual Power," as he called it—now existed in the country: the Provisional Government and the Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies. The latter had faith in the honesty and good intentions of the former; and in the Soviets the Bolsheviks did not yet have a majority. The Bolsheviks believed the Provisional Government, being a bourgeois one, would not and could not really bring peace, bread, and land to the peasants; that it would persist in a war policy, in subservience to the Allies, in resisting any real agrarian or social reform and in compromising with the monarchical forces. Hence, for the Bolsheviks the need was "All power to the Soviets"; the need was to move from a bourgeois-democratic to a socialist revolution and only the latter would bring peace and desperately needed structural renovation and social enlightenment.

But it is to the point to observe that with the February revolution and for several months thereafter, Lenin dropped the slogan and tactic of "transforming the imperialist war into a civil war"; in those months he called for a policy of peaceful agitation and persuasion, for a policy of persuading the majority in the Soviets that the Bolshevik analysis was correct and in this way winning the majority and moving from bourgeois-democratic to socialist revolution.

In Pravda, April 7, 1917 ("The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution," known as the "April Theses") Lenin saw three basic characteristics marking the period of transition from one to the other revolution: (1) in Russia there existed "a maximum of legally recognized rights (Russia is now the freest of all the belligerent countries in the world) "; (2) there was an "absence of violence against the masses"; and (3) those masses still retained "unreasoning trust" in the Provisional Government.

This being the actual situation, Lenin concluded, Bolsheviks cannot call for civil war; the need now is for explanation, patient explanation: "As long as we are in the minority we carry on the work of criticizing and exposing errors and at the same time we preach the necessity of transferring the entire state power to the Soviets...."

In his "The Dual Power," published two days later, he again calls for all power to the Soviets, a change to be "made possible not by adventurist acts, but by clarifying proletarian minds, by emancipating them from the influence of the bourgeoisie." It is in this essay, also, that Lenin writes: "To become a power the class-conscious workers must win the majority to their side. As long as no violence is used against the people there is no other road to power. . . we dare not stand for the seizure of power by a minority."

In his pamphlet, Letters on Tactics, also published in April 1917, Lenin denounced above all, "any playing at 'seizure of power' by a workers' government . . . any kind of Blanquist adventurism." In a Pravda article published April 12, and entitled "A Shameless Lie of the Capitalists," the "lie" Lenin has in mind is that charging the Bolsheviks with advocacy of violence; on the contrary, Lenin writes, it is the bourgeois parties with their threats of violence and their lies about its advocacy who, in fact, are stimulating and advocating it. "Pravda and its followers do not preach violence. On the contrary, they declare most clearly, precisely, and definitely that our main efforts should now be concentrated on explaining to the proletarian masses their proletarian problems as distinguished from the petty bourgeoisie which has succumbed to chauvinist intoxication."

In a "Draft Resolution on the 'War," written by Lenin some time between April 15 and April 22, we find this: "Our Party will preach abstention from violence as long as the Russian capitalists and their Provisional Government confine themselves to threats of violence against the people . . . as long as the capitalists have not started using violence against the Soviets." This Draft Resolution, by Lenin, projected the possibility of simultaneous passage of supreme power in both Germany and in Russia to Soviets of Workers and Soldiers and that should this occur the possibility of wider, perhaps world-wide transition to socialism, would appear. Thus, "if the state power in the two countries, Germany and Russia, were to pass wholly and exclusively into the hands of the Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies, the whole of humanity would heave a sigh of relief, for then we would really be assured of a speedy termination of the war, of a really lasting, truly democratic peace among all the nations, and, at the same time, the transition of all countries to socialism."

After the Provisional Government, on April 18, announced its intention to continue Russia's participation in the imperialist war, the Resolution of the Bolshevik Central Committee, adopted April 21, 1917, stated:

    "Party propagandists and speakers must refute the despicable lies of the capitalist papers and of the papers supporting the capitalists to the effect that we are holding out the threat of civil war. This is a despicable lie, for only at the present moment, as long as the capitalists and their government cannot and dare not use force against the masses, as long as the masses of soldiers and workers are freely expressing their will and freely electing and displacing all authorities—at such a moment there must be compliance with the will of the majority of the population and free criticism of this will by the discontented minority; should violence be resorted to, the responsibility will fall on the Provisional Government and its supporters."

On that very day, Prime Minister Lvov of the Provisional Government offered his resignation—among other reasons because, he said, his Government no longer had the confidence of the Soviets. Thereafter, especially with the July Days, when the Kerensky government violently suppressed popular demonstrations and illegalized the Bolsheviks, only then was the tactic and method advocated in the "April Theses"—no violence, peaceful persuasion, achievement of a majority, full rights to dissident minorities—dropped and reactionary violence was forcibly resisted with the culmination in the Great October Revolution.2

It should be noted that in the post-World War II period, the Communist Parties of Spain and Portugal at times have affirmed that they saw the possibility of the peaceful transition to socialism—and this where fascism rules. The estimate was based on the relationship of forces in the world and in Europe; on the exceedingly precarious hold that Franco still has upon power in Spain, and the developing force of public opinion and anti-fascist organization in Portugal. Here, again, the opinion was based upon an estimate of the power of reaction to resort, effectively, to force in order to prevent its own replacement.

Related to this, is the fact that today in the United States, strikes are infrequently accompanied by violence—although it must be said that with mounting rank-and-file impatience and militancy violence offered against strikers again is becoming less rare. Yet, as a whole, strikes and picketing today are not accompanied by violence. But 30 years ago, the opposite was true; just 30 years ago, a picket line anywhere of any size and duration almost automatically meant violent assault by police or hoodlums, or others, in the employ of the bosses. The change in this matter in our time is not due to the development of tender hearts among the police or among the bosses. The change is due, basically, to the alteration in the relationship of forces vis-à-vis organized labor and capital—it is due to the fact that 30 years ago there were perhaps six or seven million trade-unionists and today there are 17 or 18 millions. There are other reasons for this change, including the growth of class collaborationism, but this is the basic one; the bosses have the same will to smash genuine trade unionism now as they did before, but they do not have the same power or capacity—given all relationships—to do so today as they had then.

We conclude, therefore, that violence is not an organic part of the definition of the process of revolution, and that the conventional presentation which equates violence with revolution is false. And we conclude that the conventional view which places the onus for the appearance of violence in connection with basic social change upon the advocates of such change is altogether wrong; where violence does accompany revolutionary transformation, it owes its origin and takes its impulse from the forces of reaction which seek to drown the future in blood.

Most certainly, genuine revolutionists of the 20th century are not advocates of force and violence; they are advocates of fundamental social change, often faced with the organized and systematized force and violence of the supporters of outmoded and criminal social systems. A prime example of the latter are the slum-ridden, rat-infested ghettoes of "Golden America."
B. Democracy

Next to that stereotype which identifies revolution with violence, none is more widespread than that which places revolution as antithetical to democracy. One hears frequently the question of social change posed as being between two alternatives—either the democratic or the revolutionary—with the clear inference that the two are mutually exclusive. The idea of revolution as being the opposite of democracy, carries with it also the view of the revolutionary process as being fundamentally conspiratorial.

Such ideas are in line with the Hollywood version of revolution, not with the actuality. All of us have seen the "movie-spectacular," with the dastardly rebel demanding that the lovely queen yield to his awful desires, else he will permit the revolution to sweep on; if she does yield, he promises to call the whole thing off. Such films, of course, always begin with the fine-print reminder that any similarity between what the spectators are about to see and real life is purely coincidental; certainly, as a dramatization of the revolutionary process, this conventional Hollywood version has nothing to do with reality.

If the widest popular participation, at its most intense level, be basic to the meaning of democracy—and I think it is—then the whole revolutionary process and culmination, far from being contrary to democracy, represents its quintessence. And the more fundamental the nature of the revolutionary process, the more democratic it will be, the more irrelevant will be conspiracy, the more indigenous will be its roots, and the more necessary will be the deepest involvement of the vast majority of the population.

It is counter-revolution which is anti-democratic and therefore conspiratorial in character. Counter-revolution, hostile to the interests of the vast majority and contemptuous of the majority, elitist and exploitative, finds it necessary to operate by stealth, through deliberate deception, and with dependence upon the precipitation of violence. This is why Aaron Burr, seeking to sever the western half of the United States from the new republic and to establish his own empire, operated with but a few confederates, accumulated weapons, and based himself upon twenty pieces of silver from French and Spanish Pilates. This is why Franco, a General of the Army of the Spanish Republic, representing extremely reactionary feudalistic elements in Spain, selling out to German and Italian fascism, secretly plotted the forcible overthrow of the legally elected and popular government, and based himself upon mercenary, non-Spanish troops for the accomplishment of the purpose.

This is why the overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran and of the Arbenz government in Guatemala—whose programs represented popular aspirations, as their existence reflected popular support—were engineered by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States. These are examples of truly unpopular and therefore secretive and conspiratorial, government changes (not to speak of the question of illegality and violation of sovereignty), reflecting not revolution, but counter-revolution.

The ruling-class charge of "conspiracy" hurled against revolutionary movements has the obvious inspiration of serving to condemn such movements and as a pretext for efforts to illegalize them and to persecute their advocates and adherents. The ruling-class charge of anti-democratic heard today in this country against revolutionary efforts, reflects the demagogic use of the deep democratic traditions of our land and the persistent hold these traditions have upon many millions of our compatriots.

The basic source, however, of the conventional ruling-class charge of conspiracy and sedition, usually spiced with the additional label of alien inspiration, stems from the classes' rationalization for their own domination. That is, exploitative ruling classes always insist that the orders they dominate are idyllic and that nothing but devotion and contentment characterize the people fortunate enough to live under their rule.

Hence, where significant revolutionary movements do appear, they must reflect not fundamental contradictions and antagonisms and injustices within the system, but rather the nefarious machinations of distempered individuals or of agents of a hostile foreign power. That is, the source of the unrest may be anywhere—in the blandishments of the devil, the influence of the notorious Declaration of Independence or of The Communist Manifesto, or the Paris Commune, or the Moscow Kremlin, or the Garrisonian sheet published in Boston, called The Liberator, or the anti-American schemings of Queen Victoria, or the Protocols of Zion, or the Bavarian Illuminati—but it cannot be within the social order challenged by the unrest. For, obviously, if it were there, this would question the basic conceptions of their own order so far as those dominating it are concerned, and would tend to justify the efforts at change.

This kind of thinking, furthermore, is natural for exploitative ruling classes since their inherent elitism makes them contemptuous of the masses of people. They, therefore, tend to see them as sodden robots, or unruly children, or slumbering beasts, and feel that they may be goaded into fits of temper, or duped into displays of savagery, but that no other sources for their own expressions of their own real needs and aims are possible.3 In any case, with the paternalism characteristic of elitism, exploitative ruling classes tend to be certain that they know what is best for their own "people."

A stark illustration of these tendencies and attitudes, intensified by that special form of elitism known as racism, appeared in the response of American slaveowners to evidences of unrest among the Negro slaves. Whenever such evidences appeared, the slaveowners invariably insisted that they were due to outside agitators, Northern fanatics or knaves, who had stirred up their slaves, for their own malicious or misguided reasons. The Abolitionists denied the charge and insisted that the source of the unrest of the slaves lay in slavery. They offered a dramatic proof of this idea, when they assured the slaveowners that they knew a perfect and permanent cure for slave uprisings, and one that if not adopted would simultaneously guarantee the continuance of such uprisings.

If you would eliminate slave revolts, said the Abolitionists, eliminate slavery. If the slaves are emancipated on Monday, the following Tuesday would mark the beginning of a condition which would be permanently free of slave risings; but if the slaves are not freed, then, no matter what precautions are taken uprisings would occur.

This point was hammered home, in the days of the American Revolution—which, one might think, would be lesson enough—by Benjamin Franklin in the course of a debate over taxation policy held in the Continental Congress. At this time, a delegate from Maryland remarked that he could see no reason for making any distinction among various forms of property when it came to taxing them, and that therefore he thought the principle of taxing slaves should differ in no way from the principle of taxing sheep. Franklin, getting the eye of the chairman, asked the Marylander if he would permit an interruption for the purpose of a question, which, Mr. Franklin believed, might serve to illuminate the point being made. The Marylander granted the courtesy and Franklin propounded one of the most pregnant questions ever conceived. Noting that the Marylander could see no difference between such property as slaves and sheep, Benjamin Franklin then asked: "Can the delegate from Maryland point to a single insurrection of sheep?"

If human beings did nothing but masticate, defecate, fornicate and, when dead, dessicate, there would be, of course, no insurrection of slaves, anymore than there have been insurrections of sheep. It is, rather, the capacity to think, yearn, dream, plan, compare; to feel discontent and to project its elimination; it is the glorious insistence that life may be better than it is for ourselves and our children which is the essential content of the human in the species human being. It is this which is the overall dynamic of history, and it is the contradictions and antagonisms within hitherto existing exploitative societies that have, fundamentally, accounted for the revolutionary process which, despite everything, has existed, developed and triumphed in the past.4

The concept of democracy is born of revolution; and not least, in this connection, is our own American Revolution. In the 18th century the American word "Congress" reverberated through the palaces of the world with the same impact with which, in the 20th century, the Russian word "Soviet" reverberated through the mansions of the world; and the word "citizen" connoted very much the same partisanship on the side of the sovereignty of the people that the word "comrade" does today.

Today, when the fullest implementation, in every aspect, of popular sovereignty is on the historical agenda, the democratic and anti-conspiratorial character of the revolutionary process is especially clear. This is why Engels, back in March 1895, in an introduction to Marx's The Class Struggles in France (International Publishers, N. Y., 1964), was able to write:

    "The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organization, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for with body and soul. The history of the past fifty years has taught us that."

And, I think, the history of the years since Engels penned those words has confirmed further their truth. To conclude: the revolutionary process was the most democratic of all historical developments in the past, and in the present era, the era of the transition from capitalism to socialism, the revolutionary process remains thoroughly democratic, in inspiration, in organization, in purpose, and in mode of accomplishment.5


1    Not only is it true that in this passage, Marx was referring to past history and—to be exact—to the history of the bourgeoisie; in addition, Marx was using the word "force" as synonymous with state power. The passage occurs in the first volume of Capital, where Marx is commenting on "different factors of primitive accumulation.' He continues: "These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g., the colonial system. But they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organized force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with the new one. It is itself an economic power."

2    The quotations from Lenin may be found in his Collected Works (Moscow, 1964), Vol. XXIV; all italics as in original. See also V. I. Lenin, Selected Works, 3 vols. (International Publishers, N. Y., 1967), especially Vol. 3. Note also, Lenin's "Greetings to the Hungarian Workers," May 27, 1919, where he hails the fact that Hungary's socialist revolution (at that time) "was incomparably easier and more peaceful" than Russia's. He remarks that "this last circumstance is particularly important"; that while resistance to such change will be great and must be vigorously opposed, still in the period of transition from capitalism to socialism, the main thing—the "essence"—Lenin holds, "does not lie in force alone, or even mainly in force," but rather in the "organization and discipline" of the working class seeking to "remove the basis for any kind of exploitation of man by man." (V. I. Lenin, Against Revisionism, Moscow, 1959, pp. 499-500.)

3    Apt is this from When the Wolves Howl, the novel by Aquilino Ribeiro, contemporary Portuguese anti-fascist writer. The scene is the trial of political prisoners, and the prosecutor is speaking: "As was expected he came up with the usual reasons—that classic argument appropriate to discretionary power—namely the presumption that there was a hidden hand in any popular disturbance or, to use its legal definition, 'collective disobedience'—the hand of communist agitators. He could not admit, and refused to allow, the possibility that a revolt could begin spontaneously among the masses because they felt their interests endangered or themselves thwarted. Everything must be the work of illegal organizations, determined to disturb the happy calm of the Portuguese Eldorado of peace and plenty." (Macmillan, N. Y., 1963, p. 186.)

4    Notice that in The Holy Family (1845), Marx, in explaining rebellion that afflicts exploitative society, referred to "a revolt to which it is forced by the contradiction between its humanity and its situation, which is an open, clear and absolute negation of its humanity" (italics in original).

5    Note, as an example from Lenin that may be multiplied many times, this in "Greetings to Italian, French and German Communists," written October 10, 1919: "the proletariat is perfectly well aware that for the success of its revolution, for the successful overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the sympathy of the majority of the working people (and, it follows, of the majority of the population) is absolutely necessary." (Lenin, Against Revisionism, Moscow, 1959, p. 523; Italics in original.)

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