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The Uses of Revolutionary Violence

When compared to the countries it most resembles, America has always been a violent place. Born in a violent revolution, America also differs from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in its toleration of revolutionary violence as a legitimate method of effecting political change. 

The great theorist of revolutionary violence was Georges Sorel (1847-1922), and those who seek to understand modern American politics might wish to read his Reflections on Violence. In it, Sorel described how French trade unions had used the threat of violence to wrest the changes they desired. So too, the looting and riots in today’s America are best seen as the political expression of a revolt against what is seen as an illegitimate state.

Before revolutionary violence succeeds in its political goals, I suggest that four things are required. First, violence must be routinized, like the filth and the detritus on their streets that San Franciscans must now accept as a fact of life. Second, the violence must be seen to serve the revolutionary goal of resisting an illegitimate state. Third, a fainéant state must show itself to be unwilling to suppress the violence. Lastly, an ostensibly revolutionary party allied to the rioters must be able credibly to promise that, if given its way, it can cabin in the violence and prevent things from descending to mere anarchy.

The murder rates in cities such as Chicago, and the inability of the local authorities to solve crimes, would be wholly unacceptable, full stop, in our sister democracies. Here, however, we are asked to tolerate and even excuse such crimes as a consequence of “root causes” for which the state and not the murderer is responsible. Empirically this is nonsense, and morally it is repugnant, but this describes how many Americans, perhaps half of us, think. If society is to blame, what some call “senseless murders” in Chicago are really political acts.

Violence becomes revolutionary when the state is seen as illegitimate, and Gordon Wood and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. have reminded us that this is why mobs played so important a role in the American Revolution. Similarly, the present American government is less than legitimate if all of American history should be seen through the prism of slavery and Jim Crow, as the 1619 Project holds. In addition, many think Trump was not legitimately elected since his opponent took a greater share of the popular vote. By contrast, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals received fewer votes than the Tories in the 2015 Canadian election, and no one joined a “resistance.”

Georges Sorel could tell you. “The most decisive factor in social politics is the cowardice of the government,” he wrote. That’s when the revolutionaries get their way.

The Canadian experience also shows how revolutionary violence has no purchase in a state that in self-defense employs the means necessary to oppose it. Consider the 1970 “October Crisis,” when the Front de libération du Québec took two prominent hostages and demanded that the provincial government negotiate for their release. When it looked as though the province might crumble, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act and sent tanks rumbling down the streets of Montreal. The next day, Trudeau was accosted by Tim Ralfe, a CBC reporter, as he stepped from his limo on Parliament Hill. The exchange deserves to be quoted in extenso.

Ralfe: Sir, what is it about all these men with guns around here?

Trudeau [smiling]: Oh, have you noticed? …  What’s your worry? …

Ralfe: The kind of violence you’re fighting here, the violence of the FLQ, can lead to a police state. …

Trudeau: Yeah, but I’ve asked what your own logic is. … Call off the police? … 

I think it is more important to get rid of those who are committing violence against the total society and those who are trying to run the government through a parallel power by establishing their authority by kidnapping and blackmail. And I think it is our duty as a government to protect government officials and important people in our society against being used as tools in this blackmail. …

Ralfe: No, I still go back to the choice that you have to make in the kind of society that you live in.

Trudeau: Yes, well there are a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed, but it is more important to keep law and order in this society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don’t like the looks of a soldier’s helmet.

Ralfe: At any cost? How far would you go with that? How far would you extend that?

Trudeau [shrugging]: Well, just watch me. …

Ralfe: Well, if you extend this and you say, ok, you’re going to do anything to protect them, does this include wire-tapping, reducing other civil liberties in some way?

Trudeau: Yes, I think the society must take every means at its disposal to defend itself against the emergence of a parallel power which defies the elected power in this country, and I think that goes to any distance. So long as there is a power in here which is challenging the elected representative of the people I think that power must be stopped and I think it’s only, I repeat, weak-kneed bleeding hearts who are afraid to take these measures.

I know that the exchange will horrify many, perhaps most, Americans, and likely all libertarians, but Trudeau had shown how a liberal, democratic state should defend itself when radicals question its legitimacy and threaten its sovereignty with revolutionary violence. And what happens when the state refrains from doing so? Georges Sorel could tell you. “The most decisive factor in social politics is the cowardice of the government,” he wrote. That’s when the revolutionaries get their way.

We’re not there yet in America. But when city officials in Portland permit a mob to shut down an ICE building, when they allow a federal court house to be attacked, when random violence is tolerated, it’s time to ask what else must happen before Trump steps in and declares a state of insurrection. We’ve learned how the Democrats propose to take it to the next level if Trump wins the November election and how they’ve even contemplated secession and a military coup. And what then? For all his bluster, is Trump as tough-minded and manly as Pierre Trudeau? 

Which brings me to my fourth point. Revolutionary violence is parasitic upon a fellow-travelling party of the left which promises that it can rein in the anarchy. Such a role was played by Jean Jaurès in France and Charles Stewart Parnell in Ireland. “In both cases,” said Sorel, “a parliamentary group sells peace of mind to the conservatives, who do not dare use the force they command.” And that is what the Democrats are running on. Elect Trump and all Hell will break loose, they say. Elect us and it will go away. “For this reason,” says The Atlantic, “strictly law-and-order Republicans who have responded in dismay to scenes of rioting and looting have an interest in Biden winning.” It looks like extortion, but it may work. No one ever votes for anarchy, and every revolution awaits its Napoleon.

Those are the four badges of Revolutionary Violence. Perhaps there is a fifth. In Quebec, the FLQ fell apart for two reasons. The first was Pierre Trudeau. The second was René Lévesque, a separatist whom Quebecers elected as their premier in 1976. What Lévesque showed the separatists was that Quebec could become independent without violence through the democratic process. What followed were two separatist referenda in the province, both of which failed, as well as a recognition by the rest of Canada that a political solution to separatism would be possible, if that indeed was what Quebec wanted. Since then there’s been a tiresome political debate about separatism—but no violence.

There are several reasons why American radicals feel drawn to violence. A sense that the country has failed to come to terms with its troubled racial history. A broken student loan program that has made debt slaves of too many of them, and a Congress that failed to deliver the national health plan Americans want. And perhaps also the infirmities of the American constitution, so ill-suited for a divided country where necessity meets impossibility and needed reforms cannot be enacted. 

In the end, revolutionary violence is always an indictment of a political system’s democratic legitimacy.

Reader Discussion

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on October 07, 2020 at 08:25:19 am

Well, it is nothing more than a tautology to say "... revolutionary violence is always an indictment of a political system’s democratic legitimacy." That literally says nothing whatsoever. The critical questions are, an indictment by whom?, and in support of what?

Concerning the template as reflective of Sorel, it's a good generic template and can serve as a starting point, to get the discussion moving, but the U.S. is in a sui generis position. Most notably, perhaps, we are the Americana in Pax Americana, we are not simply at the cutting edge, we are the cutting edge of that Pax. Likewise, the Canada/Quebec example doesn't help much. The U.S. is facing something that is orders of magnitude more insidious and pernicious, and potentially lethal to the republic (we are a constitutional and democratic republic) than what Trudeau was facing fifty years ago; there's little comparison. Courage is obviously needed, but the current situation has many more dynamics and balancing acts to attend to. It's a game of chess with a grandmaster opponent; Trudeau's case, comparatively, was a simple game of checkers.

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Michael Bond
on October 07, 2020 at 14:48:52 pm

"... revolutionary violence is always an indictment of a political system’s democratic legitimacy." That literally says nothing whatsoever. The critical questions are, an indictment by whom?, and in support of what?

Good catch. Sorel himself provided insight into these issues with his idea of myth. I discussed this more systematically in a September 3, 2020 comment to the essay "Hopelessness in the New History." Briefly, Sorel did not think it all that important to explain the circumstances behind revolutionary violence. To repeat an earlier quote of Sorel:

A myth cannot be refuted since it is, at bottom, identical to the convictions of a group...unanalyzable into parts which could be placed on the plane of historical descriptions.

Since myths cannot be refuted, there is no reason to develop elaborate arguments in support of them. More specifically, since myths cannot be refuted, there is no need to claim that violence is justified on grounds that facts justify it. The appeal to myth makes justification ancillary. It is also worth noting that Sorel did not have a desired end result in mind when advocating violence, and specifically criticized the idea of Utopias as "intellectual products."

Professor Buckley resorts to the same manner of thinking. His assertions that:

A sense that the country has failed to come to terms with its troubled racial history. A broken student loan program that has made debt slaves of too many of them, and a Congress that failed to deliver the national health plan Americans want. And perhaps also the infirmities of the American constitution, so ill-suited for a divided country where necessity meets impossibility and needed reforms cannot be enacted.

are themselves Sorelian myths. The premise of Mr. Buckley's essay, "revolutionary violence is always an indictment of a political system’s democratic legitimacy," is also a myth, but one that can be refuted. "Revolutionary" violence, like any other type of violence, may proceed quite noticeably in the setting of legitimate democratic institutions. Once again, Sergey Nechayev, an advocate of revolutionary violence, pretty much for the sake of revolutionary violence, would quite possibly have been amused by Professor Buckley's claim.

In short, it is unnecessary and frequently fruitless to consider violence as a last-resort means to achieve some rectification of democratic infirmities. Sometimes, and to some people, it is an end in itself.

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z9z99
on October 07, 2020 at 08:38:48 am

On the other hand, "our sister democracies" of ANZAC and Canada have rolled over on coronavirus lockdowns much easier ...

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Eric Morris
on October 07, 2020 at 09:49:39 am

This essay got some elementary things right, e.g., 1) the necessity of prompt and forceful response to restore order and the importance of displaying no tolerance of revolutionists' tactics and 2) the propensity of a national political party (the Democrats,) enchanted by the ideals of revolutionists, to protect them so as to exploit them (which always fails. Solzhenitsyn describes how the Social Democrats ("Kadets'') in Russia's Duma were enchanted by the "intelligents," the revolutionary intelligentsia, sought to shelter and exploit them, yet were the very first to be destroyed when the Bolsheviks took power. The same mistake occurred in Berlin, allowing Hitler's rise.)

But Buckley got wrong ( I would say, again,) the most important stuff, here, the reason for revolutionary violence in the US, which he says is caused by the failure of the constitution, the failure to provide national health care and student debt relief and the failure, as he says, to respond to a "sense that the country has failed to come to terms with its troubled racial history. " Buckley's accusations sound very much like talking points and finger-pointing of the Democrat Party, Pelosi, Schumer, AOC and Maxine Waters, today's "Kadets." Buckley leaves out of his basket of deplorable "causes of revolution" the most obvious cause, the only real cause, which is neo-Marxist ideology, a contagion universally spread through American universities, bountifully funded by America's financial oligarchy, skillfully orchestrated by America's information oligopoly, and mindlessly fueled by America's ubiquitous "promise-everything and do-nothing" Blue State governors and mayors who for decades a) have incited revolutionists with utopian promises, demagogic accusations and endless demands for more government spending, b) culturally destroyed and financially bankrupted their states and cities with incompetence, misfeasance and corruption, and c) promoted revolutionary violence by tolerating it in the hopes of politically exploiting it.

Professor Buckley in his finger-pointing has made the very same mistake of the Kadets in Russia's Dumas and of the Democrat Party, today, that of justifying the illicit demands of the revolutionary "intelligentsia" in the vain hopes of politically exploiting their revolution.

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paladin
on October 07, 2020 at 10:14:15 am

STUDENT LOANS!
NATIONAL HEALTH CARE!
Now, Really, Frank. This time your humor fails you.
And to compare America's Revolutionary protagonists to the unthinking, semi-literate vicious Antifa mobs fails on so many levels as to not warrant any further comment.
And then there is Buckley's claim that "most" Americans would be "Shocked, I tell you, Shocked" that Trudeau brought in tanks to quell an uprising is also false. Most polling, as well as native intuition, tells us that the majority of people are opposed to such behavior.

This strikes me as another in a long series of Buckley's diatribes against a republic based upon a written constitution and federalism as opposed to one so near and dear to his heart, i.e., "parley-mentary" governance.
As someone else remarked, UK, Canada, and Australia, NZ have succumbed to Covid lockdowns quite as readily, if not more extensively, than has the US AND their restrictions upon speech based upon the concerns of the "woke" are far more extensive than are those in the USA.

Take a break, Frank. If there is any "parleying" to be done, we Americans can do it amongst ourselves and within the constructs of our Federal Republic.

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gabe
on October 07, 2020 at 11:13:57 am

The breakdown that is threatening the country comes from the failure of the president to federalize the national guard--as Eisenhower had done in the the Little Rock school crisis--to put down revolutionary violence in places such as Minneapolis, Seattle, and Portland where left-wing local officials were in collusion with the forces of anarchy. Appeasing terrorism simply brings more terrorism.

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John Braeman
on October 07, 2020 at 14:07:26 pm

John:
Have to agree. The Trumpster should have deployed the National Guard. The Federalization of US Marshalls in Portland, while helpful, was not sufficient.
In this regard, The Trumpster may have been fainthearted and / or listened too much to his political advisors who cautioned against inciting the MEDIA.
Yikes!

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gabe
on October 07, 2020 at 12:14:18 pm

Radicals want to set up a "parallel power." A useful phrase and idea for 2020.

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Carl Eric Scott
on October 07, 2020 at 13:11:32 pm

“The critical questions are, an indictment by whom?, and in support of what?”

“The breakdown that is threatening the country comes from the failure of the president to federalize the national guard--as Eisenhower had done in the the Little Rock school crisis--to put down revolutionary violence in places such as Minneapolis, Seattle, and Portland where left-wing local officials were in collusion with the forces of anarchy. Appeasing terrorism simply brings more terrorism.”

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Nancy
on October 07, 2020 at 13:36:20 pm

“10 U.S. Code § 12406 - National Guard in Federal service: call
U.S. Code
Notes
prev | next
Whenever—
(1) the United States, or any of the Commonwealths or possessions, is invaded or is in danger of invasion by a foreign nation;
(2) there is a rebellion or danger of a rebellion against the authority of the Government of the United States; or
(3) the President is unable with the regular forces to execute the laws of the United States;
the President may call into Federal service members and units of the National Guard of any State in such numbers as he considers necessary to repel the invasion, suppress the rebellion, or execute those laws. Orders for these purposes shall be issued through the governors of the States or, in the case of the District of Columbia, through the commanding general of the National Guard of the District of Columbia.
(Added Pub. L. 103–337, div. A, title XVI, § 1662(f)(1), Oct. 5, 1994, 108 Stat. 2994; amended Pub. L. 109–163, div. A, title X, § 1057(a)(5), Jan. 6, 2006, 119 Stat. 3440.)“

The question is, what do you do when the Governor of a particular State desires to aid and abet the rebellion against The Authority Of The Government Of The United States because they refuse to execute the Laws of The United States, putting the people in grave danger? Certainly any reasonable person could agree, such treasonous action, is a violation of our Constitution, due to gross negligence and dereliction of duty.

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Nancy
on October 07, 2020 at 15:40:08 pm

The left coast is too dependent on federal money. We can't leave. The talk of secession is pompous blather and (almost) everyone knows it. The northern California counties might secede from California an form a new state since they have a case (they do not and can not have practical state representation in the current situation) and they are not dependent on state money.

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Scott Amorian
on October 08, 2020 at 00:59:01 am

The author's thesis is that revolutions are based on the illegitimacy of government that is in power. But to the Democrat Party there never has been a legitimate government other than themselves. Moreover, Buckley seems to believe that the underclass spontaneously rises up to foment a revolution. The reality is that all revolutions come from the top (the elites who fund them, equip them and provide so-called grass roots leaders). So I disagree with Buckley's sociology based on George Sorel. All revolutions are manipulated to appear as grass roots movements. The Russian Revolution was funded and fomented by Wall Street bankers. The ancient Roman Revolution began as an assassination of Caesar by other elites. All revolutions are eventually co-opted by elites for their purposes. Race or ethnicity of the group in power is termed racism by the outsider revolutionists who sometimes create genocides and hate crimes to give themselves legitimacy and victimhood. Instead of using the sociology of Sorel or Marx, Buckley should be apprised of the sociology of Peter L. Berger and Irving Goffman.

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Wayne Lusvardi
on October 09, 2020 at 10:06:03 am

In this essay in the quoted exchange Tim Ralfe is asking the questions that should be asked. Governments are going to protect themselves, and should, but at some point the cure is worse than the disease. If a democracy defends itself by becoming a police state then it is no longer a democracy and that is just as bad as a left wing revolution. The passage about the media only focusing on if Trump challenges the election is farcical because he is the candidate openly disparaging the election before it even happens and refusing to publicly say he will abide by the results. Of course that is what we are going to focus on rather than a has been Democrat taking part in a simulation.

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Anthony M Yodice
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on October 07, 2020 at 07:07:47 am

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