Humanity’s history is associated with numerous political developments and changes, many of which have taken place in violent circumstances. Many of the best-known political events in history were violent revolutions, with the French Revolution being credited as the end of absolute monarchy and the beginning of modern democracy. As a result, a violent revolution is often seen as a valid method of achieving change when the government is unwilling to listen to demands. Some political ideologies, notably Marxism with its socialist repressions and dictatorial manifestations in practice, condone its usage. However, this essay argues against the idea by evaluating the relationship between violence and power, analyzing the changes that it creates, and reviewing Fanon’s views on it. It asserts that, while violence may sometimes be unavoidable, it should never be the intention or object of political action.
Violence and Power
The movements that support the political usage of violence often assert that it is a form of power. Violence, as well as its threat, enables one to make demands of people who are unable to respond in kind and have them fulfill these requirements. It does not require persuasion or agreement on the part of the coerced party and can achieve a goal quickly if necessary. However, violence is only valid as long as the disparity in destructive potential exists between the two parties. Therefore, the party that is being threatened will rationally seek ways to overturn the balance, whether by becoming violent itself or reducing the aggressor’s ability to do harm. Once such a scenario is reached, they have substantially more freedom to act and a motive to undermine the people who formerly endangered them.
The violent approach also results in problems once its application to revolutions is considered. As Arendt (1969) claims, governments have traditionally held much more power than the would-be revolutionaries, even if they lacked numbers, because of their access to dramatically superior weaponry. Even with the development of weapons of mass destruction, this tendency is unchanged. While they even the balance to a degree, their usage can only result in mutual destruction and numerous civilian casualties. In terms of conventional weaponry that still dominates warfare, rebels cannot compete with the establishment unless a large portion of its forces defects. Governments are aware of this possibility, and many dictatorial regimes appeal strongly to the police and the army to secure their loyalty and stay in power. However, numerous revolutionary movements have succeeded, regardless, both in the relatively distant past and the 20th and 21st centuries, with their rapid escalation of weapon power.
The paradigms that equate violence with power (and promote violent revolution as a result) struggle to explain this phenomenon and the factors that differentiate successful revolutionary movements from unsuccessful insurgents. The reason for the difference, in a broader context, is often described as the instability of the regime. Arendt (1969) highlights this stability, or lack thereof, as a more appropriate definition of power, one that stems from popular support. As long as the population is supportive of a government or complacent, the violent change advocates are seen as violators and criminals. Their behavior enables the forces sent to suppress them to believe that they are acting in the people’s interest. On the other hand, when attacking a popular movement and meeting with public disapproval, they are more likely to question their orders and allegiance, possibly defecting and enabling the revolution.
However, an overtly violent movement will struggle to acquire the degree of support required for such a phenomenon to take place. Its intentions will be lost beneath the harm it does to society, as any person who is harmed in the violence is a community member. Their story will turn at least some of the community members against the movement, eventually culminating in widespread public opposition. Therefore, nonviolence through various methods, whether public disobedience, spreading of materials and ideas, or other measures is the only viable option. In this case, if the other side resorts to violence, it alienates the public and shows its belief that it lacks popular support. If the movement’s ideas are persuasive, it should eventually be able to exert enough influence to force the opposition to either do so or engage in dialogue.
Violence and Change
It is true that violence can lead to change if the party engaging in it prevails, especially in the short term. Arendt (1969) describes it as an extension of the criminal’s ability to rob a bank with a gun or threaten a person into giving up their wallet. A successful violent revolution can also install a government that subscribes to the movement’s ideas, at least in theory. However, the changes that are achieved by violence tend to be short-lived and ultimately ineffectual, at least in the local context. Arendt (1969) attributes this weakness to the short-term orientation that violent action must necessarily adopt. It can only be considered rational if it reaches a goal, and with the unpredictability of the future, success can only be guaranteed if an immediate objective is adopted.
The French Revolution demonstrates the impermanence of the changes that are wrought by violent action, even with popular support. At first, the violence led to positive improvements such as the formulation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and the adoption of a constitutional monarchy. However, the revolutionaries then began fearing that they would be overthrown by force and started seeking and executing suspected counterrevolutionaries within and without France. The Reign of Terror followed, giving rise to radical and fringe ideas such as the ban on Christianity and leading to another revolt, now to overthrow the new government. The ineffectuality of the resulting government has led the population to accept Napoleon’s ascension to the throne in a bloodless (though still violent) coup d ‘état, which stabilized the situation.
The story of the French Revolution illustrates one of the most significant issues inherent in the use of violence to attain change. A movement will have many different groups within it that hold different ideas and have varying capabilities. A nonviolent approach necessarily leads to discourse if they are to unite behind a cause and succeed in promoting it. However, once violence is established as a valid and moral approach, the reasons to do so disappear, particularly for the more radical groups whose ideas cannot attain widespread approval. It is more expedient for them to seize the seat of power by force and institute their policies unilaterally. The moderate subgroup, which is the most likely to have popular support, may not be prepared to withstand such attacks, especially if it is trying to move away from violence. As such, the actions of many different radical groups create disarray in the movement and can lead to chaos.
The changes created by nonviolent movements take a substantially longer time to manifest, but they also result in substantially more stable results. Gandhi’s fight for Indian independence serves as an example, lasting over 30 years and being associated with various hardships. However, it ultimately ended with the British agreeing to leave the nation peacefully, and the nation’s new government remains mostly stable to this day. Arendt (1969) attributes this success to the foreign government’s rapid loss of institutional power, which would have meant the need to kill countless people to suppress the movement through violence. Without the legitimization of violence as a political tool and in the absence of chaotic upheaval, the political goal of Indian independence was accomplished with few complications. The outcome demonstrates the validity of the nonviolent approach at changing power dynamics in society and achieving sustainable positive change.
Some political thinkers and activists oppose the idea of nonviolence in some contexts, asserting that sometimes violent action is required to achieve political objectives. Frantz Fanon, a supporter of Algeria’s War of Independence and the author of the book The Wretched of the Earth, is one such theorist. In the chapter of the book that he named Concerning Violence, Fanon (1963) presents the scenario of a colonized nation, where the foreign bourgeoisie openly oppresses the indigenous people with force. He claims that, under the pretense of civilizing the natives, the settlers paint them and their culture as an evil that must not be allowed to rise in its current form. At the same time, the oppressed and exploited population is not allowed to integrate into the wealthier colonial culture, being seen as incapable of adopting the foreign culture.
Only a few intellectuals who are entirely in support of the system are permitted to join the colonizer society and represent it there. They promote the colonizer’s values to the local population, creating the perception that the people can better themselves by adopting the same views. Fanon (1963) suggests that Western cultures, specifically, use individualism to isolate each native person within themselves and prevent effective communication, with the person discovering the idea’s invalidity once they join a colonial freedom movement. With the continued denigration of their values and the promotion of foreign ones in a system designed so that the indigenous people cannot succeed no matter what, the person deteriorates. Fanon sees the only solution to this situation as a widespread return to the values of the native culture, followed by what he names decolonization.
The first sentence of the chapter asserts that the term is always rooted in violence. The reason is that, per Fanon (1963), the return of the native to their values is only possible once they reject the supremacy of foreign values, which they must do through a violent outburst. Hence, decolonization is the result of a nationwide uprising where a majority of natives have the realization at the same time. Fanon (1963) asserts that it necessarily means the instant and complete eradication of the settlers from the territory, with the indigenous people taking their place. The two societies of the colonizers and the colonized cannot coexist, merge, or find a compromise. As such, Fanon concludes, the promise of nonviolence is a tool of oppression and deceit and has no place in a colonial context.
Fanon is heavily inspired by Marxist ideology, which he mentions frequently and applies to formulate a conception of colonial society. He explicitly equates the colonizers to the bourgeoisie and implicitly suggests that the indigenous people are the working class. Hence, the Marxist concept of the class struggle is translated into the colonial context, and decolonization is contextualized as a proletarian revolution in which the oppressed class reclaims their rightful possessions. However, as Arendt (1969) notes, Fanon’s ideas use a Marxian pretense to justify the glorification of violence (though she adds that he was ultimately not as enthusiastic about it as the isolated chapter may suggest). Marxist ideology opposes violence, and it would be beyond the scope of this essay to discuss it, especially as it is not necessarily related to the topic at hand.
Fanon states explicitly that, in his view, decolonization involves the retention of societal structures of the colonizers, which are then populated by the natives in the absence of the freshly excised settlers. As Arendt (1969) states, with such an approach, “the unlikely victory would not result in the change of the world (or the system) but only of its personnel.” Lives would be lost, but the flawed system would stay the same, with all of its problems intact. Fanon’s oppressive colonizers would be replaced by a small leading caste of the revolutionaries, who would then keep oppressing the rest of the populace as before. However, as reality shows, the system would likely show changes, mostly ones that damage its functioning and worsen the situation altogether.
The situations of many African countries, including Algeria, demonstrate this longstanding decline, but Zimbabwe serves as one of the best examples. Having first become independent under a white government, the nation entered a civil war, which the black natives eventually won, installing Robert Mugabe in the government. Sometime later, the government began promoting anti-white rhetoric, dispossessing white farmers of their land, and forcing many to emigrate (Zembe, 2018). The loss of their skills contributed to an economic decline that has turned Zimbabwe into a nation best known for its hyperinflation. The new government is characterized by corruption at a massive scale and all levels (Maguchu, 2019). Effectively, the only effects of the civil war and the regime change on the nation’s population were the end of a period of robust economic growth and the numerous casualties.
The history of politics is associated with violence or its threat, and it has been instrumental in many massive developments. However, the most significant and sustainable changes have been created through nonviolent means. Engagement in nonviolence asserts that the movement has popular support, while its opposite indicates a lack of confidence. Moreover, violent political changes create grounds for faction splintering and the ascension of radical movements to power, destroying any benefits that may have been achieved. Despite Fanon’s assertions to the contrary, the colonial environment does not constitute an exception where violence is beneficial and necessary. His proposed decolonization process does not change the political structure, replacing the oppressive social class with a subset of the natives and creating opportunities for an economic decline.
Arendt, H. (1969). A special supplement: Reflections on violence. The New York Review. Web.
Fanon, F. (1963). The wretched of the Earth. (C. Farrington, Trans.). Grove Press.
Maguchu, P. (2019). Transitional justice and socio-economic rights in Zimbabwe. T.M.C. Asser Press.
Zembe, C. R. (2018). Zimbabwean communities in Britain: Imperial and post-colonial identities and legacies. Springer International Publishing.