Chomsky on violence

IssueJuly - August 2007
Feature by Noam Chomsky

My general feeling is that this kind of question can't be faced in a meaningful way when it's abstracted from the context of particular historical concrete circumstances.

Any rational person would agree that violence is not legitimate unless the consequences of such action are to eliminate a still greater evil.


Now there are people of course who go much further and say that one must oppose violence in general, quite apart from any possible consequences. I think that such a person is asserting one of two things.

Either she's saying that there sort to violence is illegitimate even if the consequences are to eliminate a greater evil; or else she's saying that under no conceivable circumstances will the consequences ever be such as to eliminate a greater evil.

The second of these is a factual assumption and it's almost certainly false. One can easily imagine and find circumstances in which violence does eliminate a greater evil.

As to the first, it's a kind of irreducible moral judgement that one should not resort to violence even if it would eliminate a greater evil. And these judgements are very hard to argue. I can only say that to me it seems like an immoral judgement.

Morality and consequences

Now there is a tendency to assume that a stand based on an absolute moral judgement shows high principle in a way that's not shown by a stand taken on what are disparagingly referred to as “tactical grounds”.

I think this is a pretty dubious assumption. If tactics involves a calculation of the human cost of various actions, then tactical considerations are actually the only considerations that have a moral quality to them.

So I can't accept a general and absolute opposition to violence, only that to resort to violence is illegitimate unless the consequences are to eliminate a greater evil.

The validity of nonviolence

With this formulation, however, one moves from the abstract discussion to, the context of concrete historical circumstances.

Formulated in these terms, the advocates of a qualified commitment to nonviolence have a pretty strong case.

I think they can claim with very much justice that in almost all real circumstances there is a better way than resort to violence.

Test cases

As a concrete instance: Vietnam. I'm not going to discuss the situation post-February 1965 but rather the earlier period.

From 1954 to 1957 there was large-scale terror instituted by the Saigon government.

Then, in the period 1957 to 1965 there were two sorts of violence, roughly. There was the mass violence conducted by Saigon and the United States; Bernard Fall estimates about 160,000 killed during that period.

And there was also the selective violence, selective terror carried out by the Viet Cong as part of a political programme which succeeded in gaining the adherence of a good part of the population.

For my part, of course, there's no question about justifying the American and Saigon government terror.

But what about the harder question, that of the terror practised by the National Liberation Front? Was this a legitimate political act?

Revolutionary terror

The easiest reaction is to say that all violence is abhorrent, that both sides are guilty, and to stand apart, retaining one's moral purity, and condemn them both.

This is the easiest response and in this case I think it' s also justified.

But for reasons that are pretty complex there are real arguments also in favour of the Viet Cong terror, arguments that can't be lightly dismissed, although I don't think they're correct.

One argument is that this selective terror - killing certain officials and frightening others - tended to save the population from a much more extreme government terror.

Then there's also the Fanon type argument, which I think can't be abandoned very lightly, as to whether such an act of violence frees the native from her inferiority complex and permits her to enter into political life.

I myself would like to believe that it's not so. Or at the least I'd like to believe that nonviolent reaction could achieve the same result. But it's not very easy to present evidence for this.

[Chomsky then noted that violence leads to over reaction, which can aid recruitment by guerrilla groups.]

Making a new society

With all these arguments in favour of this type of violence, I still think there are good grounds to reject it.

It seems to me, from the little we know about such matters, that a new society arises out of the actions that are taken to form it.

And one can expect that actions that are cynical and vicious, whatever their intent, will inevitably condition and deface the quality of the ends that are achieved.

Now, again, in part this is just a matter of faith. But I think there's at least some evidence that better results follow from better means.

Revolutionary success

For example, the detailed studies of Viet Cong success, like those of Douglas Pike, indicate quite clearly that the basis for success, which was enormous, was not the selective terror, but rather the effective organization which drew people into beneficial organisations, organisations that they entered out of self-interest, that they to a large extent controlled, that began to interface and cover the entire countryside.

I think the course of collectivisation in China and the Soviet Union can also be instructive.

It's clear, I believe, that the emphasis on the use of terror and violence in China [during the revolution] was considerably less than in the Soviet Union and that the success was considerably greater in achieving a just society.

And I think the most convincing example - the one about which not enough is known and to which not enough attention is paid - is the anarchist success in Spain in 1936, which was successful at least for a year or two in developing a collective society with mass participation and a very high degree of egalitarianism and even economic success.

Its successes, which were great, can be attributed to organisation and programme, not to such violence as occurred, I believe.

What one has to ask about a revolution is whether its success is based on its violence; and if we look at revolutions that have taken place I think it's not at all clear that the success has been based on the violence. In fact to a significant extent it seems to me that the successes have been based on the nonviolence.

So to sum up: if violence could be shown to lead to the over throw of lasting suppression of human life that now obtains in vast parts of the world, that would be a justification for violence. But this has not been shown at all, in my view.