Movements for change, ethics of resistance – I

| by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

[World Philosophy Day is a UNESCO initiative to make philosophical reflection and spaces for the stimulation of critical thinking and debate, accessible to all. As part of a series of events organized throughout the day at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris on November 17, 2011, the Democracy and Philosophy section of UNESCO, invited Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, Ambassador and Permanent Delegate of Sri Lanka to moderate a discussion at an event designated Café Philo (philosophical café) on the topic of "Political Movements for Change: What Ethics?" and introduce his book "Fidel’s Ethics of Violence" in support of his presentation. Msgr. Francesco Follo, Professor of the History of Philosophy and Permanent Observer of the Vatican to UNESCO, presented a critical response as co-moderator.]

(November 30, Paris, Sri Lanka Guardian) The book that I wrote entails reflections on the ethics of violence as part of political transformation. It did not come entirely out of an academic exercise. It came as the result of an attempt to apply ideas and also to reflect on action and the deflection of those ideas by reality. Sri Lanka as you know has been a very violent place and in 1989 when the civil war in El Salvador was at its peak, the prestigious periodical, The Economist (London) referred to Sri Lanka as the bloodiest place in the world. We in Sri Lanka have experienced all possible forms of political violence except — and this is an important exception — for the replacement of elected civilian government by the military; that has never happened. But we have had an ethnic or secessionist civil war for thirty years and we have had two ultra-left or far left insurrections in the southern part of the country which is dominated by the ethnic majority. The latest Norwegian study of the ethno-secessionist war gives the casualty figure of 80,000 and the casualty figures for the other two insurrections vary. So Sri Lanka has been a crucible to test political ideas; all the ideas were thrown into the vessel: the ideas of national liberation, socialism, self-determination, sovereignty, democracy. As somebody who was an observer- participant or participant-observer and an analyst of the crisis, I could not but help try to squeeze something theoretical, something conceptual, out of it. My reflections were informed by my training of choice as a political scientist, a field which I studied and which I teach. I am not, in that sense, a philosopher, unlike Msgr. Follo. But my reflections as a political scientist have brought me back into political philosophy and therefore also to philosophy itself. That is the background.

Kautilya, also known as Chanakya, the author of the famous Indian book on state-craft, the Arthashastra, a very ancient text, says that "Philosophy above all else teaches the correct and incorrect use of force." Now force is used either by those who want to preserve the status quo and resist change or those who want to change the status quo. Force in the form of violence, legal or illegal, is sometimes used by those who resist repression; by those who visit repression on others; and by those who seek to transform that which exists in one way or the other- either turn the clock back or push it forward (as they see it). So we cannot escape the ubiquity or force, by which I include violence. Does this ubiquity mean, do the horrors of violence mean, that philosophically, ethically, the discussion is inexorably polarized along one of two lines? At one end would be a position that is identified (not entirely correctly) as a realist position or a hard-nosed position, or as Henry James would call it, a tough-minded attitude. This attitude runs along the lines of "well if that is what it takes to get it done, whether it is to put down a rebellion or to take a rebellion to success, whatever it takes is necessary, and if it is necessary it is justifiable". This is one point of view. The latest incarnation of that was the so-called Global War on Terror on one hand, and on the other, 9/11, the methods and modes of struggle of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the LTTE (the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) of Sri Lanka.

At the other point of the spectrum is the philosophical position of absolute non-violence that is associated mostly with Mahatma Gandhi. There is also an intermediate position, a third position, identified perhaps with the ANC, and that is tactical violence; not violence as a strategy for transformation but selective violence as armed propaganda. These are been the positions that are been available in the field.

But sixty years ago, here in this great city of Paris, the most significant debate on the subject took place between two friends whose friendship would not survive the debate. One was a practicing philosopher, the other a writer, respectively Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Though it was not a part of that debate, precisely in that same year, 1951, and precisely here at UNESCO, Jean-Paul Sartre made the point that what we must object to is "unnecessary violence", not violence as such, and that if one were to oppose violence as such, one really justifies the violence of the capitalist status quo (i.e. what Slavoj Zizek currently terms "structural violence"). Camus for his part made another vital distinction. His conclusion was that violence is justified when it is part of rebellion, but the moment that its objectives are more globally transformational or revolutionary, the moment it shifts from rebellion to revolution, it entails the widening of the scale and scope of violence and leads to its ‘permanentizing’ in the form of a post-revolutionary regime.

In my book, I have attempted to intervene in that debate to say that there is another position that is possible apart from these three. To recapitulate the three positions are, firstly, the ‘absolutising’ of violence or the refusal to entertain ethical considerations in the use of violence; secondly, the Gandhian counter-position in which the moral high ground is permanently occupied because one does not resort to violence whatever and however violent the provocation; thirdly, the intermediate or sub-position of the tactical, as distinct from strategic, use of violence. I have argued that there is a way to transcend the limitations imposed by Camus who maintained that a revolt or rebellion can remain within the bounds of humanism but that if it moves to the more ambitious objective of revolution it then risks and almost certainly entails a brutalizing violence with no ethical bounds.

Having lived through, and in a way participated peripherally in the Sri Lankan turmoil, and having compared and contrasted the political behavior of the Sri Lankan actors with those in other parts of the world, I have been always brought back to the example of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, the Cuban revolution and to a certain extent, to the Nicaraguan Sandinista revolution.

Today, when you look at Latin America, what you would find is that those movements for transformation which succeeded are ones which have not transgressed the ethical bounds of humanism. Furthermore, even those movements which failed quite utterly in a military sense, such as the Tupamaros in Uruguay, made a tremendous political come-back because they did not violate humanist ethics or made a subsequent self-criticism of any transgressions from the moral high ground.

The moral high ground is the most valuable of political territory and it is possible to hold this territory even if one has to engage in violence as resistance to repression or as a mode of overall transformation. It is an exception, but it is possible. It is possible because the proof exists in the example, the practice, the consistent practice of Fidel Castro, of Che. They demonstrate that it is possible to be, precisely, revolutionaries, and practice a higher ethics be it as guerillas requesting the assistance of ICRC to tend to captive soldiers, or as a State fighting a counter revolution backed by a gigantic power, or as a doomed guerilla force (Che noted in his Diary that in the course of an ambush he could have shot a Bolivian army soldier who was at the back of a truck but desisted because the soldier looked like he was 14 years old) or as a State engaged in a major war, twelve years in Angola, deploying 300,000 troops from 1976 to 1988 without one accusation of an atrocity even by the United States at the Human Rights Commission in Geneva. So it is possible, while deploying all forms of violence as a State and/or an anti-state movement, to remain within the bounds of ethics and a radical humanism. This has been my point: it has been done and therefore it is possible to do it, and if you do it, it is not only correct ethically, but it is also a key to success and survival.

So in that sense one is able to transform or transcend the divide between realism and idealism because Fidel Castro remained in power and the revolution has defended itself from all forms of counter-revolutionary projects. This is consonant with Lenin’s notion of power, especially State power. Therefore it has been possible to transcend the divide between realism –where the central question is the retention or acquisition of power- and idealism, where the central question has been that of right or wrong. If one is able to combine the two, then it is possible, whether as human being or as project, to present a different way of being in the world, a way of being that corresponds in the final analysis, to a notion that has been very important to me, the notion of the hero.

(To be continued)