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Double standards about violence

PAUL D'AMATO explains that our rulers justify their own use of violence, but not when it's used against them.

AN ADVOCATE of Black freedom "by any means necessary," Malcolm X once said, "We are nonviolent with people who are nonviolent with us." Furthermore, he considered it "criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks."

"Nonviolence is fine as long as it works," he argued, but he insisted that, "Power never takes a step back except in the face of more power."

Coming from a leader of an oppressed people, these words were vilified as extremist, militant--even fanatical. Yet when the same words issue from the mouths of representatives of powerful, heavily armed states, they are quoted routinely as if they are reasonable and just.

Every time a U.S. administration wants to go to war, it goes through a carefully calibrated dance of negotiation, sanctions and--finally--force to achieve its ends. The message is: "We tried to be reasonable, but these people only listen to force."

The difference between, say, the Bush administration's use of force and the Iraqis who are resisting it lies "only" in the scale of the violence (no national or revolutionary struggle from below comes close to using the kind of concentrated violence used by imperialist states) and in the aims for which force is employed.

In the case of the struggle for Black liberation in the U.S.--and in particular the fight against Jim Crow segregation in the South and police brutality in the North--Malcolm X was advocating simply that when someone tries to keep you down with their boot in your chest, you have a right to grab the boot and twist. Only one side in this struggle was just, however, and not simply because the Klan and cops were more violent.

To put it simply, you cannot equate the violence of the oppressor (violence designed to maintain oppression) and the violence of the oppressed (designed to free themselves from oppression).

To be sure, politicians and cops never equate the two. On the contrary, they clearly differentiate, condemning only the violence of the oppressed, while allowing themselves carte blanche when it comes to wielding the armed forces of the state. Indeed, the whole charade by which police maintain the political and economic power of the wealthiest class is characterized as "keeping the peace" and "maintaining order" (they never manage to explain what kind of "order" it is that they are preserving).

Hence, beating up strikers or arresting antiwar activists who march on an "unauthorized route" is "keeping the peace"--while invading Iraq, devastating the country and stirring up a hornet's nest of sectarian violence is called "establishing the conditions for a democratic Iraq," and so on.

The rhetoric of the U.S. and Israel around the Palestinian fight for justice is the most egregious example of this double standard.

Israel--with the world's fourth-largest army, along with a "quartet" of the most heavily armed states in the world, including the United States and Russia--is demanding that the Palestinian national movement "renounce violence." To this demand, what can Palestinian answer, except to echo Malcolm X: "We will renounce violence when Israel and its imperial backers renounces violence"?

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OF COURSE, every robber would prefer to get away with the loot by peaceable means. Systematic armed force is merely the expression of the fact that society is divided between exploiting and exploited classes, and that the world is carved up between competing states.

Every exploiting class would prefer to rule peacefully--it's much cheaper and more convenient to keep slaves in bondage if they don't resist, and far easier to press down wages if workers do not organize fight back.

The irony is that while the ruling class claims to want to impose its will peaceably, it is always keeping force in the wings, because it is prepared to impose its interests "by any means necessary." This calculation is based purely on expedience. And that force, moreover, is a specially trained force--that is, specially trained to kill on command.

Mass movements for social change, on the other hand, do not begin this way at all. On the contrary, when masses of ordinary people begin to take action, they begin with the sincere hope that their demands can be achieved peacefully, because they really do abhor violence.

They do this because they believe in the reasonableness of their demands. All Blacks have asked for is full equality. All immigrants have asked is that they be allowed to work unmolested, with the same rights as native-born workers. Indeed, all workers' struggles demand only what should, by rights, belong to the working class--a greater share of the wealth they themselves produce.

It is only when mass movements come up against the viciousness of state violence that they realize they must defend themselves. Even the nonviolent civil rights protests in the South often had protection from the Deacons of Defense, an armed force created mostly by ex-soldiers, set up to defend Blacks against racist violence.

The 200,000 Russian workers who peacefully marched on the Winter Palace in January 1905 carried pictures of the Tsar and humbly petitioned him for redress. They faced a hail of bullets that struck down more than 1,000 people. Their illusions were broken in an instant, ushering in the beginning of the 1905 revolution.

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