Tag Archive: violence

The only legitimate aim of violent revolution

I am not in all cases and under all circumstances against a violent revolution. I believe with some medieval and Renais­sance Christian thinkers who taught the admissibility of tyrannicide that there may indeed, under a tyranny, be no other possibility, and that a violent revolution may be justified. But I also believe that any such revolution should have as its only aim the establishment of a democracy; and by a democracy I do not mean something as vague as ‘the rule of the people’ or ‘the rule of the majority’, but a set of institutions (among them especially general elections, i.e. the right of the people to dismiss their government) which permit public control of the rulers and their dismissal by the ruled, and which make it possible for the ruled to obtain reforms without using violence, even against the will of the rulers. In other words, the use of violence is justified only under a tyranny which makes reforms without violence impossible, and it should have only one aim, that is, to bring about a state of affairs which makes reforms without violence possible.

I do not believe that we should ever attempt to achieve more than that by violent means. For I believe that such an attempt would involve the risk of destroying all prospects of reasonable reform. The prolonged use of violence may lead in the end to the loss of freedom, since it is liable to bring about not a dispassionate rule of reason, but the rule of the strong man. A violent revolution which tries to attempt more than the destruction of tyranny is at least as likely to bring about another tyranny as it is likely to achieve its real aims.

There is only one further use of violence in political quarrels which I should consider justified. I mean the resistance, once democracy has been attained, to any attack (whether from within or without the state) against the democratic con­stitution and the use of democratic methods. Any such attack, especially if it comes from the government in power, or if it is tolerated by it, should be resisted by all loyal citizens, even to the use of violence. In fact, the working of democracy rests largely upon the understanding that a government which attempts to misuse its powers and to establish itself as a tyranny (or which tolerates the establishment of a tyranny by anybody else) outlaws itself, and that the citizens have not only a right but also a duty to consider the action of such a government as a crime, and its members as a dangerous gang of criminals. But I hold that such violent resistance to attempts to overthrow democracy should be unambiguously defensive. No shadow of doubt must be left that the only aim of the resistance is to save democracy. [ch. 19, 414-5]

The right not to tolerate the intolerant

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.—In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal. [ch. 7, n4]

Getting nearer to the truth

The myth of the framework can be stated in one sentence, as follows.

A rational and fruitful discussion is impossible unless the participants share a common framework of basic assumptions or, at least, unless they have agreed on such a framework for the purpose of the discussion.

This is the myth I am going to criticize.

As I have formulated it here, the myth sounds like a sober statement, or like a sensible warning to which we ought to pay attention in order to further rational discussion. Some people even think that what I describe as a myth is a logical principle, or based on a logical principle. I think, on the contrary, that it is not only a false statement, but also a vicious statement which, if widely believed, must undermine the unity of mankind, and so must greatly increase the likelihood of violence and of war. This is the main reason why I want to combat it and refute it.

As indicated, I mean by ‘framework’ here a set of basic assumptions, or fundamental principles – that is to say, an intel­lectual framework. It is important to distinguish such a framework from some attitudes which may indeed be precon­ditions for a discussion, such as a wish to get to, or nearer to, the truth, and a willingness to share problems or to under­stand the aims and the problems of somebody else. [34-5]