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Reversion to Barbarism?

Violence Today: Actually Existing Barbarism - Socialist Register 2009 edited by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys

Reversion to Barbarism?

P A Sebastian

hen Rosa Luxemburg in 1916 quoted Engels’ famous statement that “Capitalist society faces a dilemma: either an advance to socialism, or a reversion to barbarism”, she asked: “what does a ‘reversion to barbarism’ mean at the present state of European civilisation?”. The book tries to disentangle the different kinds of violence currently around the world, to identify their shortand long-term causes, the perpetrators and victims and the sustaining conditions.

The book has 15 essays, written by scholars from different parts of the world. The opening essay offers an overview of the scale and variety of contemporary violence while also taking up, once again, the question of socialism versus barbarism. The other essays analyse the nature and roots of paradigmatic cases of violence around the world. And some of the concluding essays deal, from various standpoints, with the still important question of whether violence has any place in socialist strategy in the context of today’s actuallyexisting barbarism.

One should not have any illusions that contemporary violence is in some way exceptional. It has always been a feature of human society. “Reflections on Violence Today” by Henry Bernstein, Colin Leys and Leo Panitch states:

when the well-preserved body of a 5,000-yearold man was found in a glacier in Austria in 1991, it had an arrowhead in its back. When the 2000-year old ‘Tollund man’ was found in a Danish Peat bog in 1950, he had been strangled. The earliest recorded civilisations were founded on conquest and slaughter, and the vast war cemeteries strung along the former front lines of first world war remind us that capitalist civilisation has not been different in this respect, except for its industrialisation of the means of destruction. But whereas earlier cultures took violence and even cruelty for granted (some even celebrated it: the popularity of Homer’s account of the fighting outside Troy shows that Greek humanism co-existed with a fascination with hand-to-hand fighting in all its bloodiness), in our own times violence may be no less bloody

book review

Violence Today: Actually Existing Barbarism – Socialist Register 2009 edited by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (New Delhi: Left Word Books); 2009; pp viii + 277, Rs 350 (paperback).

(and glorified in movies and video games), but it is no longer taken for granted – or at least much less than formerly.

Marx famously observed that capital comes (into the world) dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt. The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial

hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. Violence was thus integral to primitive

accumulation, both in what became the “core” of the capitalist world and in the formation of its peripheries.

The scale and pervasiveness of violence has continued to be on a mass scale. The total number of deaths in the 20th century resulting from large-scale violence alone is estimated at about 140 million. And the world is now spending $1.3 trillion a year on weapons – surpassing the total at the peak of the cold-war. Vivek Chibber states in his essay “American Militarism and the US Political Establishment” that

if the conventional account of cold war were accurate, then, in the 1990s, the United States ought to have embraced demilitarisation and a pacific foreign policy… What happened, of course, was the very opposite. Far from scaling back its military spread, the US quickly moved to extend its presence into areas that had hitherto been out of reach.

However, as Chibber says,

it signalled the turn to a new imperialism – in contrast to the policy orientation that preceded it, and reminiscent of the global hegemony established by England two centuries ago.

The American establishment is not inhibited by any compunction in the pursuit of its imperialist ambitions whether it was in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq or somewhere else. Iraq typifies the unscrupulousness of American aggression. Chibber demonstrates that

The American invasion of Iraq has been a catastrophe of epic proportions for the Iraqi population – apart from the massive loss of Iraqi lives, the destruction of most of what was left of the country’s physical infrastructure and the creation of more than five million refugees – one-fifth of the total population.

A statement in 1996 of the former US secretary of state Madeline Albright epitomised the insensitivity of the American establishment. When she was asked by CBS whether the interests of the US were worth the death of 5,00,000 Iraqi children, she replied that it was a difficult choice but “it was worth the price”. The inte rests of the US did not have anything to do with human beings and it did not have anything to do with civilisational norms!

‘When Victims Become Killers’

As the essay, “Reflections on Violence Today” recounts, the weapons of the weak are not always turned against the strong. “One of the most widespread kinds of violence today is between people who are all themselves victims, in one way or another, of global capitalism, imperialism and attendant local forms of inequality and injustice. An instance is the African ‘conflict zones’ of Rwanda and the eastern Congo, Sudan/Darfur and Liberia/Sierra Leone, ‘when victims become killers’, as Mahmood Mamdani puts it. The Congo, in which disease and malnutrition caused by almost a decade of political violence, has since 2003 been killing an average of 40,000 people a month, half of them children, is possibly the most appalling example in the world at this moment.” The essay deals with the role which imperialism plays in maintaining and aggravating violence among the people and says that “according to circumstances – including the ways in which capitalism seizes on existing social and cultural differences and weaves them into its divisions of labour and class rule – responsive/defensive violence can

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often also develop an ethnic, religious or linguistic character that all too often permeates widespread violence among the people”. Thus some of the features noted above also characterise the mobilisation of communal violence by well-defined reactionary political forces like the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh, the Hindu fascist organisation in India. Daily forms of individual violence within communities of the dispossessed and oppressed, such as those associated with (usually male) youth gangs, sexual and other violence against women (and children) are converted into violence against neighbours with the “wrong” ethnic or religious identities.

The essay does not leave us ignorant of the vicious role which imperialism plays in such kinds of violence. It says:

What is happening today in Guatemala city must be traced back to the CIA-organised coup which overthrew the elected government of the social-democratic President Arbenz in 1954, replacing it with a military dictatorship and culminating in a brutal civil war which ended without any significant redress of the extreme inequality and mass poverty which now fuels the chronic insecurity of the streets. In the same way, what is happening in the Congo must be understood in relation to the CIA-inspired murder of Lumumba at the moment of independence from Belgian colonial rule.

The Means of Emancipation

The essay “Emancipation and the Left: The Issue of Violence” by Michael Brie starts with a statement that:

In the past six years more children have died globally as a result of starvation and preventable diseases than humans perished in the six years of the second world war. Every three seconds a human life that just began ceases to exist in a cruel way. At the same time, in these same three seconds, $120,000 are being spent on military armaments worldwide.

Violence has been built into the system. So the question arises how we can transform the system in which the violence of capital keeps people under control into a system where people are in charge of the means of production and administer their own affairs. In this respect the essay paraphrases Gunther Anders, a German thinker, that it was necessary “to consider the transition from protest to self-defence and from self-defence to counter attack”. The essay raises a pertinent question: “In the history of the Left, has the renunciation of violence not also entailed in practice a renunciation of the goal of changing society fundamentally?”

After setting forth how “violence is built into the system and expresses itself through unequal power relations”, the author of the essay says that in his scheme of things violence is conceived in a very narrow sense of the deliberate physical harm to humans by humans”. After discussing the pros and cons of violence, he asks: “Why should the erection of a leftist dictatorship be a better solution than the protection of democracy against rightwing putschists?”. When the author uses the term “leftist dictatorship”, he probably means the Marxian concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat and its degeneration in Russia. Marx had envisaged a situation in which the vast majority of people would be workers and only a handful of people would be capitalists who owned the means of production. When the proletariat captured power the capitalists were to be excluded from the realm of governance because their class interests directly clashed with the interests of the proletariat. However, complete democracy among the proletariat was a sine qua non for the establishment and maintenance of socialism. So the question of comparing proletarian dictatorship with capitalist dictatorship is untenable. Besides, such a dictatorship of the proletariat never came into existence either in Russia or in China. The result was as foreseen by Rosa Luxemburg: “…a dictatorship indeed, but not the dictatorship of the proletariat but rather the dictatorship of a handful of politicians”.

The essay rejects even militant non- violent resistance for it includes, among other things, the boycott of commodities and infrastructure, social boycotts, refusal to pay taxes, refusal to cooperate, rejection of distinctions and awards, civil disobedience, workplace and sympathy strikes and occupations as well as political strikes. Such actions may lead into a dead-end street at whose end we find paramilitarian victory of the state powers and quite often also the collapse of the protest itself. The essay asserts that “under the conditions of a democratic state based on the rule of law, the use of violence is not only illegitimate

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but in the highest degree inexpedient”. ... The true ‘obstacles’ to a change towards a more just, more ecological, more democratic and more peaceful society are those who tolerate unjust, un-ecological and unpeaceful conditions – the majority of all the citizens. If the majority within a given society does not change, then there is no real solidaristic emancipation but only the more or less frequent exchange of the top personnel”. The essay is categorical that “this, however, can only occur through non-violent means”.

Anti-Imperialist ‘Terrorism’

In the essay, “The Defence of Humanity Requires the Radicalisation of Popular Struggles”, Samir Amin argues that

modern imperialism has nothing to offer to the large majorities of peoples in Asia, Africa and Latin America (75% of the population of the planet). The continuation of the domination of capital over the totality of these peripheries…requires the militarisation of globalisation. This rules out any genuine democratisation or social progress for these peoples. The deployment of over 600 US military bases distributed over the whole planet is intended to establish the domination of Washington over the whole world…

Further, he opines that

the peoples of the South can meet the challenge only through preparation – including military preparation – that is adequate to the confrontation...they have done so victoriously and formulated an appropriate military theory and a strategy, models of which have been supplied by the Chinese people’s army and by guerrillas in Vietnam, Algeria, Cuba and the Portuguese colonies.

Samir Amin goes on to say that

While the United States’ project, backed by their subordinate European and Israeli allies, aims to establish military control over the whole planet, the Middle East has been chosen, in line with this perspective, as a ‘first strike’ region.

He finds it positive and encouraging that there was an effective armed resistance in Lebanon. And it showed why it was necessary, today more than ever, to defend the people’s inalienable right to armed resistance. “This is why the very idea of disarming Hezbollah must be treated as unacceptable”, he asserts.

Amin deals with organisations which substitute for struggles against the state, struggles in “civil society” and says that

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“civil society” or the “multitude” today have not already become subjects of history; they remain fully conditioned by social relations peculiar to capitalism. It may be noted in this regard that the foreignfunded organisations in developing countries like India use terms like tribals, villagers and urbanities and try to obfuscate the class divisions in the society which makes clear on whose side they are in a class struggle.

Lastly, Amin drives the point that there are two types of terrorism – one



– perpetrated by imperialist countries like America and the other resorted to by the victims of imperialist terror. The second “terrorism” is the consequence of the first “terrorism”. Today many people do not know that it is Zionists who first used terrorism politically in modern times. They used it against the British who were in possession of Palestine. Ultimately, the Zionists occupied Palestine and threw the Palestinians out of their homeland where they lived from time immemorial. The terrorism resorted to




-by some of the Palestinians against their tormentors was the response of a helpless and hapless people. The same pattern has been repeated in all other instances of terrorism.

The book throws light on the question of what sort of barbarism the world will slip into in the absence of an advance to socialism and whether violence has any place in socialist strategy in the context of today’s actually-existing barbarism.






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