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Introduction: Smell the Tragic: War, Revolution and Violence After the Cold War

Instead of asking in what case violence is legitimate as a political instrument, we must ask to what extent violence is legitimate as a regulatory, integrative force in everyday life.
John Brady, Joe Lockard, and Joel Schalit, Issue Editors

Issue #30, February 1997

It would be a little obvious
To fence off all the slums
Hand out machine guns
To the poor in the projects
And watch 'em kill each other off
A more subtle genocide is when
The only hope for the young
Is to join the army and slowly die
Wall Street or Crack Dealer Avenue
The last roads left to the American Dream
— Jello Biafra With DOA, "Full Metal Jackoff"

One of the goals of this issue is to explore how the relationship between revolution, violence and politics has changed since the end of the Cold War. Every modern social movement that has fought for fundamental changes in the status quo has had to come to terms with violence as one of the possible instruments in its repertoire of political activities. The two most important opposition movements since the Enlightenment, the bourgeois liberation movements of the 18th and 19th centuries and the Marxist revolutionary movements of late 19th and 20th centuries employed political violence as a temporary means to a greater and more just revolutionary end. The bourgeois movements employed violence in establishing liberal democratic regimes across the West. Marxist movements radicalized revolutionary violence, believing that it represented a just and final solution to the most basic problems created by capitalist development.

Not only did the question of how to achieve revolutionary change become a central pre-occupation of many Leninists and Maoists seeking to overthrow fascism, imperialism and colonialism, but they also conceived of revolutionary violence as the highest form of political activity. By contrast, the 'new social movements' of the post-war period such as the student, civil rights, environmental and women's movements largely rejected political violence as part of their strategies of change. Instead they adopted what Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called 'counter-hegemonic' strategies which sought to revise the nature and function of the state democratically, from within the sphere of popular culture and civil society by forming cultural coalitions and economic power blocs to force changes in domestic and foreign policy legislation in countries like the US, England, Italy and Germany.

It is our contention that the period of counter-hegemonic politics is largely over. The political and institutional context in which these so-called movements flourished has largely changed. The welfare system is in retreat under attack by neo-conservative economic policies. The organized labor movement has declined to under half of its post-war share of the workforce. Deindustrialization has massively diminished the number of remaining jobs. Out-sourcing is effectively wiping clean this nation's remaining industrial base in favor of foreign imports and cheap domestic labor. The so-called American version of the left — a separate class of intellectual, cultural and academic elites — have in their impotence taken to falling all over one another with inane disagreements about academic methodology and cultural styles such as Postmodernism versus Marxism, Grunge versus Punk, Multiculturalism versus Materialism, Indie versus Major, and so on. The list goes on forever. Meanwhile the wheels of the capitalist machine continue to roll over the poor and the hungry; prisons get better funding than universities; and the declining middle class gets better haircuts, listens to louder music and builds even higher security fences. Something is terribly wrong here.

Despite differences in perspective on the role of revolutionary violence, the new social movements of the 1960s largely agreed that violence in pursuit of political goals is a real moral problem. The employment of political violence is such a serious matter that it demands being measured in terms of universal justice and the traditionally religious promise of a better political tomorrow. The more vulgar revolutionary Marxists legitimated their use of political violence through exactly this promise and, naively, believed that it would automatically give way to a more just social order. In their rejection of political violence, the post-war new social movements of the 1960s recognized the misguided belief in a linear, progressive path to political development underlying this Marxist view. New social movements came to see political violence, even in the service of fundamental social change, as an anachronistic political instrument out of touch with our increasingly acute moral sensibilities guided by the benevolent, unseen hand of social evolution, self-discovery, universal education and scientific innovation. Theodor Adorno's famous argument that history describes the progress from the slingshot to the atom bomb never rang more true. The sexy allure of nighttime tracer fire over Bagdhad had proved it once again, just like it always had, long before the Gulf War and forever after.

In this post-socialist, post-modern, post-punk, post-political, wireless world of ours, the desire for revolutionary change seems hopelessly passé. Revolutionary politics, as Jason Myers argues, has taken a total sabbatical. There is no permanent revolutionary subject left to speak of. Even the new social movements who held out the hope of fundamental and peaceful change have faded in political importance while the anthems of the sixties generation such as Bob Dylan's "Blowing In The Wind" blend into the background of Pepsi commercials during the Superbowl. If they appear on the political scene, as in the recent mobilizations around French nuclear tests or the racist politics of the German government's immigration policies, it is in an ad hoc manner and for a relatively short time period. In 1996 we witnessed old fashioned labor organizing during the French truckers strike, the GM strike, and then, more recently the mass protests against the Harris' government's draconian economic policies in Ontario. But the process of downsizing goes on as though it were propelled by a metaphysical logic oblivious to the outside world. Indeed, the German Greens, once seen as the primary example of a successful new social movement with the power to establish concrete political alternatives are well on their way to becoming just one party among many in the German political system.

badboy The only reminder of old-fashioned new social movements politics to be found in North America lies in the actions of the Christian Coalition and its grassroots political education and voter registration campaigns in local churches and electronic media ministries. However, such forms of traditional grass roots organizing are overshadowed by the homicidal actions of the Religious Right's radicalized vanguard who murder abortion clinic physicians and blow up Federal buildings and abortion clinics. To conclude from this that an analysis of revolution and political violence is without value would be far too hasty. We need to remember that violence, war and revolution must remain a crucial part of any critical analysis of capitalist society because of the violent, revolutionary character of capitalism. This is illustrated by a quick consideration of one of the few contemporary examples of the employment of political violence in the West, the American radical right. In shifting our focus in this way, we can correct one of the deficits in the left's analysis of the post-war period, namely its neglect of the violence inherent in the everyday life of capitalism.

The importance of the American radical right in the social reproduction of contemporary capitalism becomes apparent when we examine the targets of their violence. The targets of New Right terrorism are the icons of liberalism and the welfare state such as minority churches, family planning clinics, federal institutions and the like. When the right assaults such institutions, the symbolism of the target, and the brutality which is used to reject them helps delegitimate liberalism even further, particularly when it comes to church-state relations, racial equality, democracy, gender rights, and property relations. This is the symbolic currency earned by such actions and why we should accord them analytical weight. The long and persistent string of violent attacks on liberal icons since the early eighties by the anti-abortion and militia movements, in tandem with legislative, cultural and political maneuvering by the Christian Coalition, has manipulated the media's eroticization of violence, class, spirituality and social marginality. This has in turn helped pressure liberal politicians into finally reversing the legislative and economic gains of liberalism, first seriously assaulted by the Reagan administration in the early 1980s.

The role that right-wing violence plays in continuously reproducing capitalism should give the left pause to think. The American left, in its focus on counter-hegemonic strategy, aesthetic genres and alternative lifestyle politics has largely abandoned the analysis of violence, which in turn has led to the dismissal of capital as a legitimate and worthy subject of concern. This has led the left into a number of tragic political blindspots. Most importantly it has ignored the inherently violent, warlike character of capitalist social relations, and the use of force to maintain rigid, rapidly growing distinctions between classes by the state and its repressive auxiliaries, the police, the army and the legal system. To put it quite bluntly, violence is the purest objectification of capitalism. If we become sensitive to the violence of the social relations in which we find ourselves, we can revive popular mass questioning of the legitimacy of capitalism and its status quos. This is what it will take to revive discourse about revolution.

Instead of asking in what case violence is legitimate as a political instrument, we must ask to what extent violence is legitimate as a regulatory, integrative force in everyday life. Only then will we be able to begin to reopen questions about the legitimacy of the free market after the Cold War. American right-wing violence has been engaged in a preservationist campaign, one that has sought to ensure that supposedly traditional venues of statist versus individual violence are maintained in historically ordained relationships of class, race and gender. Capitalist revolutionary violence is abstract. That is why the left has always had such a hard time identifying it. It is simultaneously economic, cultural, and physical. A leftist counter-politics needs to both identify the varieties of capitalist coercion, as well as offer practical ideas for the development of alternatives to the free market's politics of class warfare, cultural politics and revolutionary violence.

Copyright © 1997 by John Brady, Joe Lockard, and Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.