Violence And Non-Violence

Marx to Mao

Rustam Singh

Is the Marxist revolution necessarily violent, or have the leading Marxist thinkers and activists admitted the possibility of a peaceful transformation as well? What are, if at all there are any, the circumstances under which peaceful transformation may take place? Is the violent or peaceful nature of the revolution determined by the very structures of a given society? If so, is it determined solely by the economic structures? Or, do political structures too have a role to play? To what extent can the role of these structures be independent of the economic structures? Does the level of capitalist economic development affect the nature of the revolution, making it violent or peaceful? That is to say, will the nature of the revolution be different if the capitalist economic structures are less, or more, developed at a given place? What about the place where capitalist development has just begun but where a Marxist revolution is contemplated? Similarly, does the predominantly feudal character of a society have something to do with the violent or peaceful nature of the revolution? Further, once the revolution is violent, is the degree of violence determined by such factors? Do international factors too play some role in making the revolution violent or peaceful? If so, what is the nature of these factors, how do they operate, and under what kinds of circumstances? Do the leading Marxist thinkers admit of the role of conscious subjective intervention in the process of revolution? If so, what impact is it most likely to have on the nature of the revolution in the aforementioned terms? What are the conditions under which such intervention is acceptable? Finally, to what extent, if at all, and why, did the later Marxist thinkers deviate from the original Marxian position over this issue? Were there any differences among these later thinkers? If so, what were these differences, and what were the reasons for them?

The issue of violence in the Marxist revolution has remained a subject of unresolved controversy. The controversy has spanned both the theoretical and practical fields of the world communist movement. In both these fields, it has been a major divisive issue, and has led, at different stages of the movement, to the adoption and propagation of conflicting and contradictory strategies at the domestic as well as at the international level.

The controversy first gained prominence after the death of Engels (1895) and lasted, in this form, till the end of the Second International (1889-1914). Among those who participated in this debate were such leading socialist theoreticians of the period as Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg. The point at issue was whether capitalism had to be overthrown and socialism established through violent struggle, or could this be achieved through peaceful means by using to the advantages of the working class the political institutions of the bourgeois state? The answer to this problem involved accepting or rejecting participation in bourgeois parliamentary politics. If this participation was accepted, it raised the further question of the degree of this participation. To what extent could a Marxist party get involved in bourgeois parliamentary politics without compromising its revolutionary aims and principles?

Bernstein, Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg, all provided different answers to these questions, suggesting diverging strategies and tactics. Kautsky and Luxemburg quoted Marx and Engels to 'prove' their respective cases. Not so Bernstein who argued that there was no need for the working class to wage a violent struggle to capture political power in order to transform capitalism into socialism. The living standards of the working class were rising. A new middle class had developed, and was expanding. Alongside these developments had emerged parliamentary democratic institutions. These had become so deeply entrenched that the ruling bourgeoisie could not, at will, manipulate them against working class interests.

Kautsky challenged Bernstein's thesis that capitalism would get transformed into socialism without a violent struggle. This struggle, he contended, was inevitable as there was a basic class contradiction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The contradiction did not disappear because of the development of capitalism. On the contrary, it got increasingly sharpened as capitalism matured. The sharpening of the contradiction led to an intensification of the class struggle which had to end, finally, in a violent capture of political power by the working class. However, the working class could capture power only when the conditions were ripe. Therefore, till the conditions became ripe the workers' parties must engage themselves in the struggle for democratic reforms within capitalism.

Rosa Luxemburg agreed with Kautsky that the proletariat could not win power and bring about socialism without a violent struggle. But this struggle, according to her, had to be launched immediately. Accepting struggle for reforms as a form of political activity meant acceptance of bourgeois rule for an indefinite period because reforms as an activity, were typical of bourgeois democracy. Therefore, the working class must not wait for the conditions to ripen before taking violent action for capturing power. This action itself was necessary to make the conditions ripe. It could not be postponed till a future date.

The second occasion on which the controversy acquired prominence was towards the later half of the 1950s. It became, by the early 1960s, a major cause of a sharp division in the world communist movement along the lines, of what has come to be known as the Sino-Soviet split. The issues, this time, were : (1) What form, violent or peaceful, should the revolutions take in both the developed capitalist and the ex-colonial underdeveloped countries? (2) What stance should the international communist movement in general and the socialist countries in particular adopt towards the above-mentioned revolutions? In other words, should it be a stance of active, militant collaboration, or one of mere ideological support? One can see the controversy assumed slightly different form this time. Firstly, the debate took place between the leaderships of two (socialist) countries, and not among Marxist thinkers as such. And secondly, whereas the earlier debate focused on matters of strategy and tactics primarily at the domestic level, the new debate encompassed the international level as well. The reason for this obviously was the changed international situation in which the world communist movement now found itself.

Evoking the authority of Lenin, the Soviets contended that violence and civil war were not "the only way to remake society". According to them, the contemporary historical situation offered the working class "in a number of capitalist and former colonial countries" an opportunity "to capture a stable majority in Parliament", and "to secure the transfer of the basic means of production into the hands of the people". However, in countries where capitalism was "still strong", and had "a huge military and police apparatus at its disposal", the transition to socialism was still to "be attended by a sharp class, revolutionary struggle". On the basis of this argument, the Soviets concluded that there was no need of "armed interference by the socialist countries" in the countries where capitalism still existed.

The Chinese did not reject the Soviet thesis outright, but they did not agree with it either. They asserted, in Lenin's words, that the possibility of attaining power and carrying out transition to socialism by peaceful means was "extraordinarily rare". They quoted Lenin to claim, first that "No ruling class in the world ever gave way without a struggle", and second, that "The reactionary classes themselves are usually the first to resort to violence, to civil war". This being the case, it was "difficult to imagine" that the proletariat could adopt measures in parliament for a "peaceful transition to socialism" just because it had won "a certain number of votes in parliament". Therefore, the communists should "take part in parliamentary struggles", but they should have "no illusions" about the bourgeois parliamentary system. It was true, the Chinese said, that the rise of socialism at the world level had "weakened the position of the imperialist violence in the world". But this was not sufficient to prevent the imperialists from oppressing the people in individual countries. Therefore, "people everywhere should give their support" to "the anti-imperialist struggles".

A point that emerges from the above exposition is that the question whether according to the Marxist doctrine a peaceful transition to socialism is possible assumed increasing significance over the years. The debate on this question revolved mainly around the bourgeois parliamentary institutions. Although there were attempts to play down the importance of these institutions, their strategic and tactical implications for the communist movement could be ignored by none. After the collapse of 'socialism' in countries where it was brought about or imposed through violent means, albeit in the absence of parliamentary institutions, this question has become all the more relevant. The resolution of this question, one way or another, will determine, to a large extent, the further course of the communist movement. It is also going to affect, in a significant manner, the domestic politics especially of the developing capitalist or semi-capitalist societies where the communist parties are active.

Yet the question has never received the kind of attention it deserves. The literature dealing with the subject is extremely meagre. Systematic, detailed and comprehensive discussion focusing exclusively on this subject has not been attempted in the past. There are, of course, some works which engage with the issue of violence in the Marxist theory. But, firstly, this engagement is either marginal or partial. In other words, it occurs either as part of a larger discussion of a particular Marxist thinker or as discussion of any one of his works. Where the discussion focuses exclusively on violence, it deals with only one thinker. When the discussion extends to more than one thinker, it is extremely brief. Occasionally, a specific aspect of violence, for example terrorism, has been taken up and examined in detail.

The thinkers in addition to Marx and Mao are Engels and Lenin. …Others have either not reserved a major place for violence in their theory and strategy of revolution, or they have done so without providing sufficient justification for the same. Regis Debray and Che Guevara, especially, fall in this latter category. They have taken a violent revolution for granted and have gone ahead devising a viable strategy for it, practically ignoring the theoretical issues. Others like Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg have been excised because although they accepted the necessity of a violent revolution in principle, they did not devote much space to this theme in their writings. There are still others like Herbert Marcuse and Slavoj Zizek who could have been included had their views on revolutionary violence been incontrovertibly accepted as Marxist.

As is known, the single most important contribution to the Marxist theory of revolution has been that of Marx and Engels. The other and the later contributions are in the nature of additions to or alterations of this theory, although this in no way diminishes their importance.

Whereas Marx and Engels were primarily thinkers, both Lenin and Mao were primarily activists who engaged themselves in theoretical exercise in order to clarify and solve the immediate questions of strategy and tactics. Apart from this, the views of all these thinkers, starting with Marx himself, evolved over time, and kept changing according to the needs of the proletarian movement in which all of them were active participants. This was particularly true of their views on the issue of violence.

[Excerpted from Violence and Marxism : Marx to Mao by Rustam Singh, published by Aakar Books, 28E, Pocket IV, Mayur Vihar, Phase I, Delhi-110091, Price:Rs 495]

Vol. 49, No.4, Jul 31 - Aug 6, 2016