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.