Nonviolence & Defeating Hitler


I’ve recently been thinking about the manner in which people and institutions resort to violence. Of particular interest, is the view held by some people who argue that resorting to violence is beneficial or necessary. ‘Beneficial’ and ‘necessary’ violence is difficult to define and categorise, rather provocative, and, often sensationalized. To my mind, Gandhi’s writings on non-violence offers some degree of insight.

Gandhi’s thoughts on non-violence is deeply rhetorical. However, categorising his writings as rhetorical is not sufficient reason to abandon referring to them. It is helpful, sometimes, to admit that we can get all too strategic in our thinking. Placing importance on special kinds of rhetoric (i.e non-violence amongst human beings), could be a means by which one could create alternative self-understanding. Self-understanding that could value and appraise social relations beyond strategic paradigms. (Not to say the strategic paradigms are not important!)

On the matter of defining “violence”, I do not think there is a catch-all formula that classifies all the different forms. Although ‘obvious’ forms of violence are relatively easy to recognise, there are more ‘subtle’ forms of violence. For example, constant passive aggressive threats within a hostile relationship at work. Notwithstanding the ease at which we can recognise a range of different types of violence, there is difficulty in comparing them and measuring them against one another. Furthermore, I do think it would be problematic to equate all forms of violence (i.e. whether by the state or by individuals) as being the same thing.

Indeed, a caveat might be required. This post is simply an eclectic discussion, and not a defined position on the topic. My own readings on the subject of organised violence in society has been scattered, and furthermore, it is not my primary area of research. From scholarship discussing criminal justice and punishment, Cesare Beccaria’s treatise Dei delitti e delle pene (If there are worries about the relevance of a treatise published in 1764, Bernard Harcourt has written an insightful piece on the influence of Beccaria) and Michel Foucault’s 1975 work Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la Prison have influenced my thinking on the issue of violence in society. Similarly, Weber, in 1918, famously declared that a state is “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”.

It appears that it is quite ‘natural’ to refer to the consequences of violence, to identify and evaluate the violence itself.  For instance, one often comes across the argument concerning a state’s capacity to carry out capital punishment, which, is likened as a form of deterrence that allows the state to maintain public order. Such an argument accepts a rather simplistic view of the social world. It assumes a much stronger link between the cause of violence and the preventive strategy one may wish to advocate. I am not suggesting that there is no link between capital punishment and crime rates. However, what I am suggesting is that it may be a highly variable link. Also, one must be willing to admit that the link is substantially dependent on the social context. Returning to Weber, one mode of understanding violence might be through the formula: person does violence to another person, state uses force against violent person. It is important to move beyond this ‘eye-for-eye’ formula of justice that the state can do, and foster the question whether the state might have other means available to address the original act of violence. For instance, understanding the sociological background and consider deeper inequalities in society as a determining factor. I do not mean to jump to any conclusion that violence is thus mitigated or excusable. Rather, it is worthwhile to recognise that there are alternative ways to address social violence.

I am reminded of a quote. The quote is often attributed to a famous author. As I have not found good evidence for the attribution, I’ll merely refer to the quote and not any alleged author.

People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.

I have heard this quote several times and am a little concerned with its premise. I am aware that security often demands the capacity for force. Perhaps, inevitably so, as Weber described. My problem with the quote is how simplistically the statement characterises human beings. My experience – from lawyers working on cases where successful prosecution would bring a death sentence, to, proponents who wished to bring an end to Saddam’s regime in Iraq through military intervention – is that even those who predicted and called for violence do not sleep well at night. Generally, human beings are attuned to the problems of using the crude tool of violence to achieve objectives. So, yes, people sleep easy knowing they have security. However, when ‘rough men’ act on their behalf, my experience is that people are affected.

Returning to Gandhi’s writings, I can help frame the underlying tension with a small personal interaction a number of months ago. I posted a quote on Facebook.

“I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.” – Mahatma Gandhi

One of my colleagues replied to the post.

“Defeating Hitler? Otherwise I generally agree.”

This small interaction has been in my thoughts and touches on the idea of beneficial or necessary violence. I doubt if my colleague thought about it much since. The ‘Defeating Hitler?’ question was reasonably posed, almost certainly in part rhetorically, to a quote from me that had a nice ring to it, but, lacked practical concreteness. So, what are some of the problems associated?

The quote itself had too few words, and, the ‘posting’ a great deal of subtext. My thoughts kept returning to the subtext, which was not easy to think through. The difficulty for me appeared to be how one “unifies” two sets of ideas. Indeed, if one really could or should unify them. One set of ideas relates to the manner in which human objection to violence should be generalised, and the other set, the specific manners in which society resorts to violence to control behaviour. Both sets of ideas are significant. They relate to the manner in which we reconcile authorising violence whilst collectively responding to wrong-doing.

The issue is that it appears to be quite easy to carry the assumption that the ‘specific manners by which one resorts to violence’ is a straightforward choice. As in, we know exactly when an exception might be made, like when one tries to ‘defeat hitler’. At the same time, by some magic, we could all comfortably hold on to the idea that regardless of all the ongoing violence that we maintain a general objection to violence. Not to say that I have some clever trick to resolve this grand dilemma. Rather, I find discomfort with the idea that one might think it is straightforward.

I posted the quote by Gandhi on Facebook around the time of increasing violence by ISIL and ISIS, particularly when the beheadings hit the news. The beheadings carried out by these militant groups are indefensible. National and international criminal laws are available to carry out prosecution, and indeed, those who carried out those crimes should be prosecuted. The barrier to prosecutions has been noted to be an issue more concerned with capture, and ‘wider politics‘.

However, the moment the beheadings hit the news, I knew it was not necessarily ‘capture and prosecution’ that would be in the minds of many. Rather, it became clear that discussions began speaking of some form of military intervention. Military interventions that quite often starts or intensifies civil wars, cause an explosion of civilian casualties, and otherwise attempts to clarify a political situation whose politics could never have been resolved through violence in the first place. Asymmetric warfare exists in our world. Asymmetry between different military powers and between civilian and militant groups. It is increasingly difficult to think about warfare as a fight between good people and bad people. Rather, it is often a fight made public, where militarised political narratives provide a self-executing justification for furthering a complete breakdown of civilian life.

At the heart of my discomfort, is that, I do not think it is acceptable to think that a ‘necessary intervention’, by virtue of its necessity, is thus ‘free of evil’. To put it another way, how could objections to violence continue to be part of our thinking in supposedly straightforward situations? Why not demonstrate a self-awareness of the problem of resorting to violence? It may be that it is rather uncomfortable to admit that there was some problem with the ‘good peoples’ triumph over ‘bad peoples’. To admit such a thing affects how we view the triumph, perhaps, as somewhat less perfect. There are many who think that good and evil are real, perhaps even embodied by entities. From Gandhi’s quote, it is not entirely clear what his eschatological views were. I prefer to view good and evil as concepts created by human sentience. We continue to refer and use these concepts, as it helps structure social relations and our place in it.

The concepts of good and evil play a part in a working collective system of appraisal. By creating and restating stories interspersed with the concepts of good and evil, the concepts play a role in how we protect our future state of self. Whether it be with regards to protecting our feelings after a natural disaster or preventing another’s violence against us. By telling the story of human aspirations to do ‘good’ and human vulnerability to ‘evil’, we possess a means for demonstrating solidarity and empathy. A collective capacity for recognising each other’s experiences, and a way of putting ourselves in each other’s shoes. By doing so, the concepts of good and evil, give our stories a special discursive status. One that allows these stories to provide the raison d’être for formal institutions and processes to regulate social behaviour on our behalf. Often, no longer needing to be in direct consultation, but, embodying an objective authority.

Yet, what objective authority do the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ bring? What did Gandhi mean with the phrases “good is only temporary” or the “evil it does is permanent”? Surely, good and evil are both temporary and permanent, depending on human perception and memory. Gandhi was a figure-head of an Indian revolution, against a historical backdrop of a whole series of brutalities during the British Raj era. His attempt to mobilize a population into revolution, all the while preaching non-violence and hoping to restrain the rising masses from wantonly resorting to violence, was inspired.

Notwithstanding, my antagonism with the quote provides some food for thought. There appears to be no obvious non-violent means for dealing with the kind of violence undertaken by ISIS and ISIL. A foreign minister of any nation is not going to be meeting with islamic state militants in the deserts of the levant any time soon. Instead, the response is likely to be through some form of increasing militarization. It is not that the military engagement is not known to be problematic. Simply, there are not many other ready alternatives. Yet, by doing so, the whole complex issue would be further simplified through a step in militarization. My fear, is that with every simplification, the easier it might be to resort to violence.

There is the potential for good and evil in every human deed. It is not mere idealism to assert that when a human deed has violence, then, there is a strongest case for being more attuned to the evil it does. Being aware that violence is not free from evil, should mean opening one’s choice to resort to violence up to more intensive social debate. Certainly, experience tells us that being transparent is not an easy thing to do in politically controversial circumstances. Think about the Hillsborough Inquest, and eventual admission decades later. There also might be difficulty in finding and trusting in independent evaluators in a public debate. Furthermore, and quite cynically, avoiding admission might help avoid or limit further liabilities. Protecting the agency to intervene should not be equated as immunity from appraisal of wrongs. This last point remains an important issue.

I am troubled by all of this, and I certainly do not think a simple blog post is going to do much to quell my anxiety. Telling stories about good and evil is tough. One can quite easily be called an apologist for violence, or worse, an apologist for evils. It appears to me that if we wish to take violent interventions seriously, then we must also take seriously, what I would like to describe as the political life of goodness (and evil) within our international discourses. For me, the political life of goodness is not something naturally embedded in reality. Rather, it is created by virtue of human participation and our capacity to tell stories well. So, yes, there is a need to be able to identify evil and to intervene. Yet, we must also be able to speak candidly about the manner in which conceptual pairs like “violence-evil” and “good-evil” are symbolically and rhetorically linked. It is precisely an uncritical acceptance of visions of goodness that often results in doing wrongs. Not only should we think about the ‘Pol Pots’ and the ‘Hitlers’, but also, systematic violence such as sexual slavery and deplorable working conditions.

There is not much more to add here in this post. The claim I wished to make was that there is deep link between ‘violence’ and ‘evil’. A link that we must be able to make, and a link that brings criticism back to the ‘do-gooder’. Also, it may be a highly rhetorical link. The importance of the link is not to fall into the trap that there is no ‘rhetorics’ involved. Rather, it is helpful to attune ourselves to the discursive impetus such rhetoric brings to how we appraise human deeds, or indeed, choose not to do so.

Here’s Gandhi’s quote in a fuller form:

“There is no principle worth the name if it is not wholly good. I swear by non-violence because i know that it alone conduces to the highest good of mankind, not merely in the next world but in this also. I object to violence because, when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent. I do not believe that the killing of even every Englishman can do the slightest good to India. The millions will be just as badly off as they are today, if someone made it possible to kill off every Englishman tomorrow. The responsibility is more ours than that of the English for the present state of things. The English will be powerless to do evil if we will but do good. Hence by incessant emphasis on reform from within.” Originally published on 21 May 1925, in ‘Young India’, can be also found in Gandhi, Selected Political Writings, page 43-44.

Also, here is a Letter from Gandhi to Hitler in 1939,

Friends have been urging me to write to you for the sake of humanity. But I have resisted their request, because of the feeling that any letter from me would be an impertinence. Something tells me that I must not calculate and that I must make my appeal for whatever it may be worth.

It is quite clear that you are today the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to the savage state. Must you pay the price for an object however worthy it may appear to you to be? Will you listen to the appeal of one who has seliberately [sic] shunned the method of war not without considerable success? Any way I anticipate your forgiveness, if I have erred in writing to you.

The letter as read by Clarke Peters on BBC’s Newsnight


A Wordcloud of post

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Stephen Samuel