I take an absolutist line on violence: It is categorically immoral. It is immoral in war. It is immoral in criminal justice. It is immoral in conflict resolution and ethical calculus and in the name of political expediency. It is immoral under circumstances most would consider justified: Although I would likely kill in self-defense, I do not conflate the understandable with the good. I would do so because I am selfish and imperfect.
This sometimes puts me at odds with other members of the left, who may question the strategic wisdom of any violence against the modern state, but who do not in principle oppose it. They may regret it. They may seek to limit it. But as it is difficult to imagine any kind of revolution without at least some bloodshed, many accept political violence as permissible under certain circumstances, a kind of necessary evil. I do not. That isn’t to say I have a solution to the problem of political violence. I only have a moral conviction, one that comes before any political thinking at all.
I have been thinking about the problem of violence this week as I read Peter McPhee’s 2012 biography of Robespierre, “A Revolutionary Life”. I’ve read a lot about Robespierre. He interests me in part because he is perhaps the most notorious example of a man seduced by the expediency of political violence, and seduced despite his earlier and evidently sincere opposition to bloodshed. “I have demanded the abolition of the death penalty at your Constituent Assembly, and am not to blame if the first principles of reason appeared to you moral and political heresies… the death penalty is in general a crime, unjustifiable by the indestructible principles of nature,” he said, but in the same breath that went on to proclaim that “Louis must die so that the nation may live”.
Robespierre claimed the execution of Louis was a special circumstance. “You ask for an exception to the death penalty for him alone who could legitimize it?” appears in the same speech. But within a year, his conviction that in all other cases “society may always protect itself by other means, making those culpable powerless to harm it” was gone. The Terror followed.
The reasons for Robespierre’s descent into violence have been analyzed ceaselessly since the moment of his own execution. He was paranoid, he was a psychopath, he was never really against violence, he was never really in control of the Revolution: take your pick. I don’t propose to review the theories here. But McPhee’s biography focuses more than most on Robespierre’s childhood and young adulthood, as well as the summer of 1789. Reading it, I noticed something instructive in Robespierre’s response to the first casualties of the Revolution that illuminates something interesting about political violence.
On July 14th, 1789, Parisian peasants stormed the Bastille fortress. The Bastille’s governor, the Marquis de Launay, ordered his troops to open fire, killing roughly 100 Parisians. After the Bastille was captured, Launay was murdered in retribution, along with Jacques de Flesselles. McPhee gives us the aftermath:
“Sporadic cases of collective killing did not cease with the taking of the Bastille….On the 20th, the Marquis de Lally-Tollendal, one of the noble deputies for Paris, proposed disseminating a proclamation authorizing municipalities to form militias composed only of those certain to be reliable if confront with unrest. Robespierre leapt to his feet: ‘What has happened in this riot in Paris? General freedom, little blood spilt, a few heads chopped off, of course, but they were the heads of guilty people.’
“Robespierre was one of those who understood what the Revolution might entail,” McPhee goes one, “It was not that he was flippant about violence: he had a horror of the taking of life. Such was his conviction of the justice of the people’s cause against entrenched oppression, however, that he was prepared to accept that some individuals particularly detested for their own violence would be targets of retribution.”
Perhaps Robespierre’s acceptance of these murders was merely expedient: what could he do to oppose them without taking the side of the nobles? Without risking his own head? Perhaps his whole history was an exercise in this excuse: the people wanted blood, and he couldn’t deny it to them if he tried. But I cannot help noticing how much Robespierre’s rationalization, particularly in its early, raw, unpracticed form, is tied up in the notion of individual culpability: the exceptional cases against whom violence was justified. Some individuals, particularly detested. One king, whose very life was uniquely contrary to the Revolution. Particular bastards. The ones who were really asking for it.
Robespierre’s belief in individual autonomy shouldn’t surprise us. He was a product of the Enlightenment. The sovereignty, and thus the virtue and the culpability of the individual is so fundamental to that intellectual movement that it is likely the only thing many people remember about it from high school.
But Marxism and its intellectual heirs reject this notion: People are not autonomous. They do not behave rationally, or freely. There are no wholly culpable autonomous actors, only the expressions of culpable systems. The violence of capitalism, for example, is not the violence of particularly corrupt individuals but the inevitable product of a material structure. Some individuals may resist or relish their role, may err on the side of restraint or of excess, but their choices are not truly their own. One can imagine a Bastille Governor who did not order his troops to slaughter peasants, but this only reflects the routine imperfection of all systems. Such a choice would be an aberration: the historical force of the Ancien Regime was designed to open fire.
It has always seemed to me that collective theories of politics would therefore resist political violence. It is easy enough to justify the occasional murder of an actor if you believe his crimes begin and end with his own choices. But if entire classes are the engine of any political crime, then a politics that justifies the killing of those responsible does not end with an execution. It ends with a holocaust. I have always hoped that this inevitability would make collectivists wary of political violence, the ends of its logic too horrifying and too clear. But history contradicts my hope. When the left has seized power, it has always found kulaks to liquidate, great leaps to take forward. It has taken precisely the nightmare that arises from Robespierre’s excuse and applied it on a grand scale. Of course no individual is wholly responsible for its crimes, it says. That’s why we have to liquidate all the kulaks.
I have never known what to do about this problem. I do not know now. The history of left violence has driven many away from the movement, persuaded that mass murder is its inevitable consequence. I do not believe that. I do not know what I would do if I did: I can no more abandon my moral duty to the material equality of all people than I can my nonviolence. But I do know that the Left has not yet resolved this tension. It has not yet explored how revolutionary change may be implemented without violence because it has not yet accepted that anything short of an absolute prohibition on bloodshed will inevitably give way to slaughter. It carries on imagining that next time will be different, next time we’ll be restrained and good and only do the very strictly necessary killing but stop short of the gulags. It imagines this because it is what every revolutionary imagines, and every revolutionary is wrong.
It is not a matter of simply saying “We will not be violent”. The arguable necessity of force in revolutionary change is not only a matter of bad morals: it is a real problem to be solved, and I do not know how to solve it. I don’t know how to reconcile the demands of radical redistribution with the moral imperative of peace. I do not know how to safeguard against the temptations of expediency.
The question may seem silly right now. The Left has barely any power! We’re nowhere near a place where this matter must be resolved. But that is precisely why the Left must reckon with the question of violence now, while it still feels faintly ridiculous. The hardest parts of moral life are not worked out in the moments they’re immediate. Urgent questions tempt easy solutions. We’ve seen those before. They have every time made a mockery of the very goodness the Left seeks to bring about. I don’t want to see them again.