Nick Hewlett
Marx on Violence

Nick Hewlett
Marx on Violence

Many past and present revolutionary movements that have used violence to achieve their ends have drawn inspiration from Karl Marx.  Yet when we scan the many books written on Marx, it becomes clear that few examine the place of violence in his revolutionary theory.  Here I discuss with Nick Hewlett Marx’s position on violence and ask how it might guide us in the twenty-first century.

Nick Hewlett

Nick Hewlett is Professor of French Studies at the University of Warwick, UK. He is author of Blood and Progress. Violence in Pursuit of Emancipation (Edinburgh, 2016), The Sarkozy Phenomenon (Imprint Academic, 2011), Badiou, Balibar, Rancière.  Re-thinking Emancipation (Continuum, 2007), Democracy in Modern France (Continuum, 2003), and Modern French Politics. Analysing Conflict and Consensus since 1945 (Polity, 1998).

How would you define ‘violence’?

Nick Hewlett: In order to make the subject manageable, I define violence narrowly, as follows: ‘deliberately causing physical pain, injury or death to others’; political violence is therefore ‘deliberately causing physical pain, injury or death to others with political goals in mind’. This type of violence is sometimes described as personal, or agent-related violence, where the perpetrator or perpetrators are often easily-identifiable. However, it is also necessary to take into account what is sometimes described (after Galtung[1]) as ‘structural’, or society-related violence, meaning harm inflicted, for example, as a result of particular conditions of work, or harm as a result of uneven distribution of resources in society, perhaps resulting in ongoing pain, illness or premature death. Inequality and structural violence are often closely related – the one frequently leading to the other – and it becomes highly relevant when discussing, amongst other things, the ethics of violence in revolt compared with the ethics of established states and governments which may be deemed responsible for structural violence. I should add that I do not include damage to property in my definition of violence, so smashing the windows of a government ministry building or cutting down a fence surrounding a military airbase are not forms of violence, although burning crops or destroying a person’s house might cause so much hardship and suffering that it becomes a form of violence. Certainly, the boundary between violent and a non-violent forms of action is not always clear-cut, nor is the difference between agent-related and structural violence.

Marx frequently refers to the inherently violent nature of capitalism.  If revolutionary violence is the means by which the working class can fight back and bring into existence a just and peaceful society, does it matter if this violence is limited or excessive?

NH: For Marx, violence is of course just one means of fighting capitalism and eventually bringing about its overthrow; other means include strikes, industrial sabotage, party building and of course the establishment of the Workers’ International in 1864 (which Marx and Engels played a leading part in forming), and taking part in local struggles of great significance, such as the Paris Commune of 1871. Having said that, there is an assumption in both Marx and Engels that revolutionary violence will be necessary, because the bourgeoisie will not give up without a fight. Marx did not explicitly – as far as I am aware – declare that revolutionary violence should be limited, in the way Fidel Castro or Nelson Mandela did in the twentieth century, for example. I believe that this is in part because when Marx was writing, the bourgeoisie and the state were particularly and obviously violent when putting down uprisings; for example in the 1830 revolution in France, roughly 1,500 insurgents were killed, together with 600 soldiers, in the space of just three days. In 1848, the revolutions which swept Europe led to the deaths of many thousands of revolutionaries, and in Paris (where Marx lived 1843-45), the repression in the June Days, led by General Cavaignac, was without mercy. The way in which the 1871 Paris Commune ended, of course confirmed the view that the bourgeois state was pitiless in its use of violence, with the massacre of roughly 25,000 people, most in cold blood, by the army sent by Versailles. Moreover, the context of the socio-economic conditions during Marx’s lifetime is important, where structural violence (as defined above) was acute, with huge class disparities with regards life expectancy, infant mortality, death in war, death in cholera epidemics, and so on; in short, life no doubt appeared relatively cheap in any case, and for Marx any violence perpetrated in the cause of revolution in the short term would be likely to save countless numbers of lives in the longer term.

Having said all that, I think there is no doubt that Marx had a humane approach to the question of violence as well. One only has to read the passages in Capital volume one on the ‘primitive accumulation of capital’, or the passages on whipping beggars at the end of the sixteenth century in the same work, to get a sense of the horror which Marx felt in relation to any violence. To sum up, then, although Marx did not believe it was right to take a pacifist or semi-pacifist approach to the struggle to overthrow capitalism (this would, in his view, have given rise to more violence in the longer term and would therefore have been irresponsible), and although he believed that revolutionary violence would almost certainly be necessary to overthrow the bourgeoisie, he was certainly not an advocate of violence for violence’s sake, as for example Georges Sorel arguably was in the early twentieth century.

Just before the Paris Commune was crushed in May 1871, Marx wrote, ‘it seems the Parisians are succumbing.  It is their own fault, but a fault which really was due to their too great decency.’  And later: ‘If they are defeated only their “good nature” will be to blame.  They should have marched at once to Versailles…  They missed their opportunity because of conscientious scruples.  They did not want to start a civil war…’  Can we expect revolutionaries to impose limits on their violence when confronted with a brutal counter-revolutionary force?  Can we ask them to jeopardise the revolution for ‘conscientious scruples’?

NH: In my book I have attempted to suggest a framework within which to discuss – amongst other things – the question of revolutionary violence, with a strong steer towards minimum necessary violence, combined with the goal of both peace and radical equality. Beyond suggesting such a framework, I don’t wish to be prescriptive about what revolutionaries are ‘allowed’ or ‘not allowed’ to do. That is for them to decide. But I do have a great deal of respect for the clear stance of Fidel Castro, who had a strict ethics of violence that meant killing was kept to a minimum, captives were released unharmed, and there was nothing like other revolutions’ period of post-revolutionary Terror. Cuba was a particular case, of course, where this sort of approach was perhaps easier to implement than elsewhere, but the spirit of Castro’s approach is inspiring.[2]

To come to the question of Marx and the Paris Commune, it is not at all clear that the French working class outside Paris – or even a majority of Communards – was ready to support a march on Versailles, in which case it is likely that the escalation would have become both a failed revolution and a still greater bloodbath than it was. In other words, I’m not convinced that France was ready for a transition to socialism and that the Communards ‘missed their opportunity’.

Marx himself did not believe that the time was right for a workers revolt in France, but later praised the resilience and true heroism displayed by the Parisians.  He wrote: ‘World history would indeed be very easy to make if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favourable chances.’  Can violence be justified when the chances for revolutionary success are slim? Or can it be said that even failed revolutions have an important role to play in sharpening the class antagonisms within capitalist society, therefore ensuring that (as Marx states in The Civil War in France) the ‘battle … break[s] out again and again in evergrowing dimensions, and there can be no doubt as to who will be the victor in the end’? 

NH: Insurgency of various kinds is no doubt important in terms of demonstrating the (perhaps growing) support for resistance and, ultimately perhaps, support for a radical change in the way in which politics and society are organised. This insurgency is bound to involve clashes with the ‘forces of law and order’ where rebels throw missiles, build barricades, and so on; injuries and some deaths are likely to occur in the course of this. However, such uprisings are no doubt more effective if the protestors and insurgents try to keep violence to a minimum and make it clear that their opponents are more violent than they are. Do failed revolutions have an important role to play in sharpening the class antagonisms within capitalist society? Certainly. Marx and Engels were very clear that both major and more minor revolts of the 1830s and 1840s, for example, in France and in Europe more generally, were important in preparing the ground for even more significant revolts. But the same could now be said of Russia, where the October Revolution was preceded by the February Revolution, and of course Lenin, Trotsky and others, in leading the October Revolution, were very influenced by the detail of what had happened in uprisings in other countries, including the Paris Commune.

In Anti-Dűhring, Engels considers Gewalt (translated as force or violence) as an ‘instrument by means of which social movement forces its way through and shatters the dead, fossilised political forms.’  Gewalt is, for Engels, a historical necessity – which, some might say, denies free will to the revolutionaries who wield it – and therefore beyond good and evil.  Are there any differences between Marx and Engels on this issue?  Should their thought be taken as a unified whole?

NH: I think there are differences between Marx and Engels on this issue, yes. In Anti-Dűhring, Engels’s theory of Gewalt is developed as part of his polemic against Dűhring and is highly economic-determinist. (Eugen von Dühring had recently published popular works based on a philosophical-scientific framework which offered proposals for harmony between the rich and the poor.) By inverting Dűhring’s own politically-determinist line of argument, Engels goes as far as saying that violence is ‘completely subordinate to the economic situation’ and argues that violence is therefore inevitable. He even goes as far as saying slavery was a necessary stage: ‘Without slavery, no Greek state, no Greek art and science; without slavery, no Roman Empire…Without the slavery of antiquity no modern socialism’. This rather crude statement is unfortunate, particularly as, if you look (as mentioned above) at passages in Capital, but also at Engels’s own The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), we see a very humane attitude to the question of violence which is very far from the one put forward in Anti-Dűhring. The theory of Gewalt in Anti-Dűhring is, however, the closest either Marx or Engels came to laying out their views on violence systematically.

In an article published in the New York Daily Tribune in 1852, Marx wrote that universal suffrage was the ‘equivalent of political power for the working class of England, where the proletariat forms the large majority of the population.’  Later, at a speech he delivered in Amsterdam in 1872, he said: ‘[W]e do not deny that there are countries like America, England … where the workers can achieve their aims by peaceful means.’  By 1891, Engels could also envisage a peaceful development towards socialism in some countries, and indeed towards the end of his life insisted on the importance of ‘slow propaganda work and parliamentary activity’, leading to charges of reformism.  Did they now believe that the bourgeoisie would relinquish power without a fight?

NH: The main thrust of both Marx’s and Engels’s argument was that, precisely because the bourgeoisie would not relinquish power without a fight, the transition to socialism was likely to be violent. In their lifetime they saw ruling classes of various countries suppress working class uprisings savagely, particularly from 1844 onwards, and one of the final few lines of the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) declares that Communist ends ‘can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions’. In The German Ideology (written in 1845), Marx and Engels comment on ‘the alteration of men on a mass scale’ (i.e. moving beyond capitalist society), arguing that such an alteration ‘can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew’. In the 1872 Amsterdam speech which you quote, Marx goes straight on to argue that ‘we must also recognize the fact that in most countries on the Continent the lever of our revolution must be force; it is force to which we must some day appeal in order to erect the rule of labour’.

However, as you say, both Marx and Engels do entertain the possibility of peaceful transition in some countries. They were of course acutely aware both of substantially different socio-economic and political conditions in different countries, but they were also aware of the increasingly interrelated nature of conditions in different countries (globalisation did not begin in the late twentieth century!). They were both convinced of the importance of struggle on an international scale – thus for example their involvement in the First Workers’ International and the final rallying cry of the Communist Manifesto: ‘Working men of all countries, unite!’ – and therefore aware of the effect that insurgency in one country would have on another. Marx might have meant that in some countries the bourgeoisie would indeed give up without too much of a fight and would be spared violent revolutions, as long as other, more violent revolutions were taking place elsewhere.

How might we use Marx’s ideas to develop a theory of violence which is adequate to our own times?

NH: In this interview we have looked mainly at Marx’s defence of revolutionary violence on the part of the proletariat, in response to the ruthless violence of the bourgeoisie. Countless events in the twenty-first century have demonstrated that those in positions of power are still prepared to use enormous amounts of lethal force in the pursuit of their interests, although they have become ‘cleverer’ at doing this than in Marx’s time. Taking just one example, there is very little footage in the public domain – or even direct reports in the press – of the 150,000-plus civilian deaths that have occurred in Iraq since the invasion in 2003. (This is a substantial change since the Vietnam War.) Use of remotely-controlled drones to kill ‘suspected terrorists’ is another example.

My contention is that it is worth returning to Marx – and some of Engels – and viewing some of their writing on violence in a somewhat different light; I suggest that their writings might be a source of inspiration for a more subtle – and indeed more peace-oriented – approach to the question of violence than that with which they are usually associated. Rather than drawing on Engels’s theory of Gewalt or concentrating solely on their defence of revolutionary violence as a means to an end, we should look more closely at Marx and Engels’s frequently-expressed revulsion at violence. This, I argue, is part of the ethics of freedom which is at the core of classical Marxism but which tends to receive far less attention than Marx and Engels’s critique of the economics and politics of capitalism, or their writings on strategies for overthrowing the rule of the bourgeoisie. (This ethics of freedom is described by Ernst Bloch as ‘warm stream Marxism’.) I am not putting forward an argument for pacifism, but my approach does conceive of all violence as ultimately antithetical to the notion of progress and freedom, tragically necessary though revolutionary violence might be in certain circumstances.



[1]  Johan Galtung, ‘Violence, Peace and Peace Research’, Journal of Peace Research, vol. 6, no.3, 1969, pp.167-191.

[2] See Castro’s comments on this in Fidel Castro with Ignacio Ramonet, My Life, trans. by Andrew Hurley (London: Penguin Books, 2007). Also see Dayan Jayatilleka, Fidel’s Ethics of Violence: The Moral Dimension of the Political Thought of Fidel Castro (London: Pluto Press, 2007).