Man of Violence
[Reprinted from Land & Liberty,
TURNING to the unruly mob in the street rather than to pen or
printing press is a method which can work. Witness the effects of over
100 deaths since 1968 in Ulster. Suddenly Mr. Wilson, the ex-Prime
Minister who might have done something about it earlier, is urging
that thought should be given to proportional representation as a way
of equitably distributing parliamentary power to the people. Should
the Welsh and Scots and Liberals turn to civil disobedience, backed by
bombings and street shootings, in order to gain full political
citizenship of this kingdom?
The question of civil disobedience is more than academically
interesting. It is relevant to all human societies that are
insensitive to the needs of their members - which must exclude very
few countries. I want to consider the issue by examining and
contrasting the cases of two revolutionaries, George Jackson and Henry
Before he was gunned down in San Quentin, "Soledad Brother"
George Jackson gave an interview in which he testified to the
influence of Henry George upon his thinking. A greater contrast
between two such men it would be difficult to find.
Jackson, the twenty-nine year old Negro serving a sentence of one
year to life imprisonment for stealing a handful of dollars, who
turned himself into a Marxist dedicated to violent overthrow of what
he saw as a tyrranical system of exploitation of his kind, had only
the space of a barred window through which to give vent to his
Whereas George, the journalist turned economist, was, through his
teachings able to whip up a solid backing right across North America
and penetrating into Europe which could have been moulded into a
fighting force if he had not preferred oratory to urban guerrilla
warfare. When men are convinced that they are fighting for their
heritage-land, the source of life and wealth - they will turn to the
barricades with vigour.
Yet for George such a programme of violence would have been anathema.
His philosophy, let us be quite clear, was revolutionary: it sought to
undermine the whole basis of property rights. That it can still fire
men with inspiration is clear from the words of George Jackson:
"... do you know who I was really impressed with,
although he isn't a socialist or communist? I was impressed with
Henry George's stuff. I've read all his stuff
His single tax idea is not correct. But I like his presentation - I
like the explanation he advanced explaining how the ruling class over
the years managed through machinations to rob and despoil the people."
The difference between the two men was in the means of achieving the
desired goal - a society in which men live harmoniously with each
other as equals.
That they shared similar revolutionary ends cannot, I think, be
disputed. Jackson, as a Marxist, harboured the notions of a classless
society of men and women fulfilling their creative lives in peace.
George sympathised: "The ideal of socialism is grand and noble;
and it is, I am convinced, possible of realization; but such a state
of society cannot be manufactured-it must grow. Society is an
organism, not a machine."
The stress is laid on the difference in means of attaining the goal.
George believed that a moral society could be attained through the
Western parliamentary system provided appropriate fiscal measures -
central to which was the taxation of land values - and individual
safeguards to freedom were instituted.
Such a vision makes incredible demands on the impatient and on the
victims of injustice. It demands the insight of a long term
perspective; it demands the depth of character that makes forgiveness
possible - now, while the savage act is being perpetrated, as well as
tomorrow, when wrongs are set right; it demands a sophisticated
insight into history and the workings of industrial society; it
demands the belief in a social system in which the rights of privately
owned capital can be balanced against the social claims of man.
In sum, it makes the kind of emotional and intellectual demands which
many cannot sustain, for it presupposes the kind of environment in
which men can afford not to resort to violence. In advanced
industrial societies, technology has compensated a great deal for the
loss of basic economic rights: most of us enjoy a standard of living
which in material terms is far in excess of anything our ancestral
land-sharing peasants of pre-enclosure days dreamt could be possible.
Contrast this with the picture we were shown for a whole week on
Thames TV in mid-September: the illiterate, starving millions of the
Third World, sapped of energy and so unable to resist disease, let
alone the greedy misdemeanours of their fellow men. Little better-off
are the poor of industrially advanced nations, be they Negroes in the
USA or the peasants of Ireland.
These people feel a deterministic scheme at work. They are weighed
down by poverty, ignorance and sometimes the constraints of religion.
(Notable exceptions are the handful of Catholic priests in South
America who are risking the wrath of Rome to take direct revolutionary
action for their suffering flocks.) They intuitively realise the
horrifying magnitude of the problems which face them.
Is it surprising that they will match this with a complementary
philosophy; one of violent action to overthrow the existing social
machinery completely, so that out of the institutional ashes will rise
(they hope) a centrally-administered system which would ensure their
continued control over the remainder of their lives? Does this, as a
manifesto, not appear suitable for both shaking up apathetic peasants
and destroying the powerful elites? It does, of course, and so Marxism
makes its converts.
We can cite two contemporary examples in which citizens threaten
civil society with disobedience and violence, on the ground that this
is the only method by which they can attain their rights. In the first
case, the victims have to directly confront the law per se. In
the second case, the victims face the more insidious problem of
confronting deep-seated attitudes antagonistic to their interests.
In recent months landless Indian peasants who have become totally
cynical about the so-called land reform laws entered on the statute
books, flying the Marxist banner, have confronted the police in
large-scale demonstrations of civil disobedience, and have actually
taken over tracts of land from landlords. This, they claim, is the
only way to put food in their bellies. To wait for the politicians and
the powerful landed interests is to wait for the cows to come home: in
India, custom ensures that they rarely do.
In the USA, the negro and the so-called "Red" Indian have
been the victims of savage historical abuse. We are only now, being
regaled with the documentary evidence of the systematic genocide of
the indigenous tribes of the continent. And, of course, we have few
illusions about the black man-captured from Africa, sold and made to
create fortunes for the cotton barons of the South. If this were but
history only, there might be little point in recalling it. But the
children of these peoples today continue to suffer the torments of
economic, social and political segregation, which are nowhere endorsed
in the Constitution. When the Black Panthers demand territorial
segregation they are merely seeking final expression for the reality
of systematic discrimination against their kind.
Who is right then, Karl Marx and his prescription for class
revolution or Henry George and his liberal democratic principles?
George appears to recognise the dilemma, and clearly did not exclude
the possibilities of extra-parliamentary action. In his discussion on
the use of force and poverty, he says that the consequences of
treading a socialistic path which used force rather than unconscious
cooperation are "the substitution of governmental direction for
the play of individual action and the attempt to secure by restriction
what can better be secured by freedom. It is evidence that whatever
savours of regulation and restriction is in itself bad and should not
be resorted to if any other mode of accomplishing the same end
Whether it can ever be said that one's choices are so totally
circumscribed is a matter of controversy, and I will not presume to
know what George would have said on this. But clearly the issue has to
be settled by each of us in the context of particular cases. This is
not to say that there are no general principles to guide us.
First, we must define civil disobedience: it is "an act of
protest, deliberately unlawful, conscientiously and publicly
performed." Next, it must be accepted that a citizen has moral
duties to a society on which he has made demands. Therefore, if he
decides to usurp the civil law, his action must be justified. "Justification"
assumes responsibility for actions, a personal integrity and a
reference to some rational assessment of the "public interest."
And finally, when getting down to brass tacks, we have to consider
very carefully the implications of the particular act. Noam Chomsky
has listed some of these: Will the act help to achieve a just end?
Would strictly legal means be ineffective? How do the overall social
consequences of obeying the law compare with those of disobeying it?
What are the effects on non-participants? Will the act deflect
attention away from the ends, to pivot on the means ?
Now let us confront ourselves with a specific problem: that of
returning property rights in land to the community. What do I do about
it? Circumstances demand different answers. Here and now, I can
honestly say that I have no right to jeopardise the social system in
which I live: a high standard of living affords me the luxury of being
able to wait. At the same time, I am morally obliged to agitate,
within legally defined limits, for a change in an indefensible
institution - the private appropriation of the rent of land.
But were I a landless Indian or Brazilian, son of an expropriated
peasant, my stomach would probably be aching from hunger, my children
consigned to a life of ignorance and poverty. I would take to civil
disobedience and even bloody revolution if the chance presented
itself. For the issue would not be just a moral one, but would carry
with it immediate economic implications. The compulsion to take direct
action would be great, even though this would more than likely
manifest itself itself in petty theft rather than in a crusade for a
When Henry George defended liberal democracy and freedom through
fiscal instruments, he did so as a white man secure in the knowledge
that no endemic barrier stood in the way of his earning an acceptable
living. When George Jackson rejected democracy for a philosophy of
violence, he did so as a black African trapped literally and
metaphorically in a hostile country, and with little in the way of
In examining the role of civil disobedience, I have felt it right to
place a heavy burden on those who seek non-parliamentary solutions.
But two conclusions are relevant.
One is that history has provided us with many examples of civil
disobedience being resorted to for honourable reasons. We should,
therefore, not be too quick to dismiss this kind of action as the
behaviour of irresponsible people, but should first enquire into the
In a very real sense, of course, such activists are irresponsible:
they refuse to accept responsibility for the actions and circumstances
of their society, or alternatively they feel themselves estranged from
political participation, and therefore denied the responsibility that
arises through political obligation.
Secondly, violence and civil unrest can be viewed as boiling point on
the thermometer of social feeling. If this is correct, then the
regularity with which this point has been reached testifies to the
politicians' manifest failure to respond sensitively to the expressed
needs of the people.
The crux of liberal democratic philosophy is that there should exist
real possibilities of effective bargaining by multiple groups, each
prepared to accept the institutional arrangements just because these
afford the means of resolving competing claims The dissenters, whether
violent or passive, feel themselves impotent within such a structure,
which must therefore be deemed defective in some way.
So they turn to what British philosophers have dramatically labelled
the "state of nature," in which the rule of positive (i.e.
legislated) law recedes to the onslaught of another code of conduct.
The lesson is that it is in the interests of all of us to assert
individual responsibility before crises are allowed to destabilise
- The Observer, August
- Progress and Poverty,
- Prof. Carl Cohen, Civil
Disobedience, Columbia UP 1971.
- The New York Review of
Books, June 17, 1971.