The ethics of violence

In its extreme form, right-wing ideology consummates in the fascist lust for violence as the means to acquire power over weaker and hapless human beings

By Ishtiaq Ahmed

(April 16, Singapore City, Sri Lanka Guardian) Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s former ambassador and permanent representative to the UN, and earlier an underground revolutionary and academic, witnessed his island nation bleed and groan for long years because of the ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority. Unmistakably, excessive and indiscriminate violence was used by all sides. The result has been horrific human rights violations of thousands of innocent people caught in the crossfire, so to say. Under the circumstances, the overarching philosophical question one is compelled to consider is the following: is violence justified to achieve political ends? If yes, then a follow-up question must be posed: are there specific circumstances in which violence is justified or should it be considered simply an option like any other?

Jayatilleka could hardly have found any inspiration from right-wing thinkers and political practitioners who take for granted that, without the exercise of violence, power and authority cannot be sustained and consolidated. Right-wing ideologies — religious, nationalist, racial — have always considered violence imperative to purge the nation of accretions and adulterations with a view to establishing purity, the truth, ideal society and so on. In its extreme form, right-wing ideology consummates in the fascist lust for violence as the means to acquire power over weaker and hapless human beings. Violence and terrorism have also held a strong attraction for Russian anarchists such as Bakunin, though they were in favour of abolishing the state and the church.

There is the diametrically opposite standpoint on violence as well. It is for total or absolute rejection of it. The notion of ahimsa or non-violence was given to the world more than two millennia ago by Jainism and perhaps equally by Buddhism, but in our own times by Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was devoted to the liberation of India from colonial rule, but on a number of occasions when he believed that his followers were not conducting the struggle strictly through peaceful means, he called off the ongoing campaign. Nelson Mandela favoured peaceful struggle but did not oppose selective use of force against the apartheid regime.

Given his leftist proclivities, Jayatilleka is interested in developing a Marxian standpoint on violence that can be defended on ethical and moral grounds. In the seminal writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, a very strong case is made for a revolution by the working class against powerful capitalists, though they always condemned terrorism and brutalisation of opponents. At times they expressed a preference for peaceful and democratic transformation of societies. Therefore, a consistent position on violence is not easy to establish in the writings of the founders of Marxism.

Lenin advocated a revolutionary shortcut to socialism in the former Soviet Union through an armed revolution, while Stalin made a virtue of violence as the means to defeat real or imagined internal and external threats faced by the first workers’ state. In practice, it meant the liquidation of not only class enemies but also comrades with whom Stalin developed serious differences. Mao Zedong, however, drew a distinction between antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradictions; while, for the resolution of the former, the use of violence to defeat exploiters was justified, non-antagonistic contradictions between party comrades and other peaceful critics were to be resolved through persuasion and dialogue. Yet, the excesses of the Cultural Revolution do caution us about the political thought of the Chinese revolutionary leader.

Given such ambiguities present in the leftist paradigm, Jayatilleka turns to the political thought and practice of the legendary Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and finally finds a standpoint on violence that is Marxian and ethical. Jayatilleka’s book, Fidel’s Ethics of Violence: The Moral Dimension of the Political Thought of Fidel Castro, is a highly competent and stimulating exercise in idea analysis. From his early days, Fidel Castro believed that the highest purpose of life is to rid society of gross injustices and, in order to achieve that, violence was justified but only as a last resort. Castro was deeply influenced by Jesus Christ who was a champion of the poor. Such influence made Castro look for a morally and ethically defensible basis for his politics, even when he was involved in war or armed struggle. Castro put this succinctly: “That is why I express my conviction — and it would be the conviction of any authentic revolutionary — that violence is the last recourse, when there is no other road, when there is no other possibility of change.”

The most important distinction that Castro draws and to which he has adhered consistently, argues Jayatilleka, is between combatants and non-combatants. Revolutionary violence is directed against only those functionaries of the state who are involved in a violent conflict with revolutionaries. Moreover, even against such individuals, torture, mutilation and dismemberment of bodily parts have not been carried out in Cuba. Also, the political opposition and dissidents have never been subjected to inhuman treatment. Castro expressed the moral basis of the Cuban Revolution in the following words: “I would have absolutely no moral right to be speaking here now if a single Cuban had been murdered by the Revolution at some point throughout these 40-plus years. If there was a single death squad in Cuba, if a single person in Cuba had vanished. And I would go even further: if a single person in our country had been tortured.”

This statement is especially important because the worst type of human rights violations took place all over Latin America during the 1980s when right-wing military juntas were in power. While the US tried to paralyse the Cuban Revolution by the longest and continuous economic embargo, the fascist military juntas were given a free hand to brutalise their people. The reason Cuba has survived while the Soviet Union collapsed and China abandoned socialism in favour of capitalism is because Cuba remained a morally and ethically good society. Socialism and humanism went hand-in-hand in building a just society. The Cuban Revolution has been an exception, but the author hopes it will become the general model for revolutionaries to emulate. I wonder where Jayatilleka would place Naxalite violence in India. If the Indian media is to be believed, it has begun to resemble the Taliban’s right-wing terrorism but the truth can only be established through proper research and enquiry.

[Ishtiaq Ahmed is a Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) and the South Asian Studies Programme at the National University of Singapore. He is also Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stockholm University. He has published extensively on South Asian politics. At ISAS, he is currently working on a book, Is Pakistan a Garrison State? He can be reached at]