Reflections on Revolutionary Violence

In the last one year, I have often found myself going back to a conversation I had had with a Maoist ideologue. As it happened, it was he who started interrogating me about my stand on violence. ‘So, you have become a Gandhian?’ he demanded. I must confess I was a bit taken aback, not quite able to figure out the context of this poser. ‘What do you mean by Gandhian’, I kind of mumbled. Pat came his reply: ‘Well you have been making some noises lately about Maoist violence, haven’t you?’ Suddenly it all became clear. Through this ridicule, he was trying to appeal to that part of me that still remained marxist – presumably now buried in some remote past – and to resurrect it against my ostensible ‘non-marxist’, ‘liberal’ present (for which ‘Gandhian’ was some kind of a short hand code). I found myself at a loss of words. Does a criticism of the mindless and nihilistic violence of the Maoists make one a Gandhian? Is there no space left between these two polar positions? The conversation did not go very far that day but has kept coming back to me ever since.

I must hasten to add though that in this day and age, I do not find the epithet ‘Gandhian’ atrocious as I might have two decades ago. Notwithstanding Gandhi’s completely wrong-headed approach to the struggle against caste and on matters of class, there are aspects of Gandhi that make him appear far more visionary today than any other leader, thinker or political current of his time. But more on that some other time.

The reason I have been going back to that conversation quite often lately is that I have begun to feel this disappearance of the middle ground ever more intensely. You can either be one or the other – and this choice is forced on us equally by the state as by the ‘revolutionaries.’ The last one year has furnished more and more evidence of the fact that it is the state that wants us to make this impossible choice: either you with us or you are a Maoist. We have on earlier occasions, written on Kafila about how the state has been working overtime manufacturing Maoists – branding activists like Roma in Sonbhadra or elsewhere as Maoists, arresting the likes of Binayak Sen and keeping them under indefinite detention for being a ‘Maoist’. The state’s demand is indistinguishable from that of the Maoist ideologue – an unholy and unstated compact, if you will of dividing up the political space at least in some parts of India. And the fundamental premise underlying this demand, as always, is that ‘this is a war.’

This is war indeed. You can substitute ‘Islamic terrorist’ and ‘the Nation’ for the terms above and the argument will remain structurally identical. So, this is war – war on terror for the State and a war of liberation or jehad for the revolutionaries. And haven’t we learnt that ‘all is fair’ in war. It is the logic of ‘war’ that enables the State/Nation and its security forces to stage encounters, kill, arrest and torture innocents while suppressing any critical voice as anti-national. That is what enables the state to suspend the ordinary processes of law and promulgate / invoke extraordinary laws that negate every democratic norm. It is never the ‘revolutionary’ – Maoist or Islamic or any such – who is arrested and tortured. In this neat compact, we have the perfect elimination of all middle ground – everybody is a suspected Maoist or jehadi on the one hand or an anti-national terrorist on the other. If Mao wanted his guerrillas to live among the peasant masses like fish in water, his followers have successfully dried up the river. There ain’t no water. It is thus the purely military organization of terror that stalks these parts of the country. That is why the life of the common person in the tribal areas of Chhattisgarh shares so much with that of an ordinary urban Muslim today: always at the mercy of the one or the other.

To a revolutionary – it matters little whether s/he is spurred by the ideology of ‘Maoism’, nationalism or global radical Islam – all such talk is sentimental nonsense. All talk that mourns the loss of innocent lives is nonsense precisely because it privileges the small, local, everyday joys and sorrows over the large Utopias of Liberation. Utopias that are precisely that – U-topias or nonplaces. If one sifts through the debris of twentieth century political thought and practice, one will see that violence is intrinsic to the Utopian imagination, to the desire to build the world in its own image. Stalinist socialism, Hitlerite National-Socialism, the Maoist Cultural Revolution or Pol Pot’s racial Khmer ‘socialism’ – all share one characteristic: They wanted to mould the world according to their vision and produce a frightening, monochromatic uniformity. And not surprisingly all of them drew heavily on the military imagination: Red Armies, the Sturm Abteilung or the Freikorps, the spectacles of grand parades, a militarily regimented society and what have you…

Dig deep into that debris of nineteenth and twentieth century political thought: you will not find one enduring change that this frenzied search for ‘power’ has produced. These messianic utopian movements did succeed in capturing state power but all the change that they produced – if at all – was ephemeral, as short-lived as the revolutions themselves. Democracy, universal suffrage, eight-hour working day, the civil rights struggles, the struggles against gender and caste discrimination, the recognition of different sexualities – all these are transformations that have taken place without armed vanguard militias, as part of patient, everyday struggles.

Even capitalism has changed over the last century and a half because of workers struggles and the impact of ecological movements – not because armed revolutionaries ‘captured state power.’ In fact, the greatest irony is that the impact of the seizure of power on the nature of capitalism, if any, was not where power was captured but elsewhere – in the industrialized capitalist countries, in the form of the New Deal and the welfare state. Everywhere else, former revolutionaries are ever only frantically building capitalism.

Violence, then. Of what use is it or has it been, even historically speaking? And what does it mean? Notwithstanding Mao’s ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’ or Sartre’s utterly misplaced idea of violence as a cleansing force: ‘To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone…there remains a dead man and a free man.’ In fact the ‘original’ Indian Maoist – the Naxalite leader Charu Mazumdar was probably closer to this Sartre than either Marx or even Mao. ‘He who has not dipped his hands in the blood of the class enemy is not worthy of being called a communist’ – that was Charu Mazumdar for you. Unlike present day Maoists, of course, Charu Babu, forbade the use of fire-arms. He prescribed smaller everyday arms used by the peasants – the sickle for example – to gruesomely kill and let the blood flow out. Many young followers would then dip their hands in that blood and paint the police stations red. Which Marx or Marxism does this notion of violence come from? It would be difficult, despite Mao’s insistence on the gun, to actually show any such instance in pre-revolution China. Former Naxalite and sociologist Rabindra Ray probably surmised correctly that this kind of ‘cult of violence’ within the early Naxalite movement derived more from Tantrism and the cults of Kali rather than from Marxism – the very indigenous roots of Naxalism, if you please. Some day a more serious investigation of this connection will have to be undertaken and it will also bring out, among other things, the facile and spurious nature of the essentialist notion of a non-violence loving, tolerant India. But that is another story.

In the first decade of the last century, Goerge Sorel responded to a series of debates on violence within the socialist movement in France and Italy. A general disgust with the compromises and betrayal by parliamentary socialist/social democratic parties permeated the militant working class movement. Revolutionary syndicalism was one of the trends that were of vital importance in the Parisian working class and which stood opposed to the idea of ‘state socialism’, advocating rather, a ‘society of associated producers’. Sorel’s tract Reflections on Violence has of course gone down in history as one of the notorious justifications of revolutionary violence but it would be worth looking at one aspect of his reflections which help put things in perspective. For Sorel does not simply justify violence of all sorts. He underlines (borrowing from Kautsky) that ‘the motive force of the revolutionary movement must also be the motive force of the ethic of the producers.’ He interprets this thesis in his own way by arguing that ‘the influence of the syndicates in labour should result from complex and sometimes distant causes, acting on the general character of the workers than from a quasi-military organization.’ In other words, it must be in tune with the life and ethic of the workers/producers – drawing on it as well as acting upon it. In a sense, this is a radical argument against ‘violence as pure means’, insisting that ‘you must be the change that you want the world to be.’ Sorel likens the worker/producer to a soldier of what he calls the ‘wars of Liberty’ – unlike the mercenary soldiers or automatons of royal armies – in that they are already ‘free men’ in spirit.

Sorel finds the same spirit ‘among working class groups who are eager for the general strike’ – ‘they picture the Revolution as an immense uprising which yet may be called individualistic; each working with the greatest possible zeal, each acting on his own account, and not troubling himself much to subordinate his conduct to a great and scientifically combined plan.’ In this release of revolutionary energy by the working class movement, Sorel sees ‘the revolutionary syndicalists’ desire to exalt the individuality of the life of the producer.’ As such, he says, ‘they run counter to the interests of politicians who want to direct the Revolution in such a way as to transmit power to a new minority.’ This appears to be the crux of the matter. Violence – revolutionary violence – can be justified if and only if, it is a mass uprising based on the unleashing of the creative revolutionary energies of the workers/producers; on no account can it be justified from this point of view if it is based on a military or quasi-military organization and led by a minority that will then usurp power ‘on behalf of’ the workers/producers. I hope it is clear by now that this notorious justification of violence by a Marxist-syndicalist is anything but Gandhian. Nonetheless, it is predicated upon a firm and unequivocal rejection of violence perpetrated by a military or a quasi-military clique in the name of the people. Historical experience since Sorel shows clearly how farsighted he (and the early 20th century Syndicalists’) was in claiming that such violence always enables a new minority to usurp power in the name of the people it claims to represent.

Many decades later, in the wake of the May 1968 uprising in Europe, Hannah Arendt revisited the field earlier scanned by Sorel. The new justifications of violence by sections of the New Left led to Arendt’s sustained reflections in her 1969 Essay, also called Reflections on Violence (later followed up by her longer exposition On Violence).
For those who may not be familiar with Arendt’s writings, let us excerpt this passage that situates violence and its place within the Marxist tradition with a fair degree of accuracy:

“The strong Marxist flavor in the rhetoric of the New Left coincides with the steady growth of the entirely non-Marxian conviction, proclaimed by Mao Tsetung, “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” To be sure, Marx was aware of the role of violence in history, but this role was to him secondary; not violence but the contradictions inherent in the old society brought about its end. The emergence of a new society was preceded, but not caused, by violent outbreaks, which he likened to the labor pangs that precede, but of course do not cause, the event of organic birth.”
“In the same vein, Marx regarded the state as an instrument of violence at the command of the ruling class; but the actual power of the ruling class did not consist of nor rely on violence. It was defined by the role the ruling class played in society, or more exactly, by its role in the process of production. It has often been noticed, and sometimes deplored, that the revolutionary Left, under the influence of Marx’s teachings, ruled out the use of violent means; the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’—openly repressive in Marx’s writings—came after the revolution and was meant, like the Roman dictatorship, as a strictly limited period. Political assassination, with the exception of a few acts of individual terror perpetuated by small groups of anarchists, was mostly the prerogative of the Right, while organized armed uprisings remained the specialty of the military.”

Arendt revisits the entire terrain of Marxist and revolutionary engagement with violence and underlines that in the end, all that Sorel eventually did by way of justifying violence was to propose the ‘myth of the general strike’. What was meant to provide the only possible justification of violence in Sorel, turns out in Arendt’s profound reflections, a claim that such a revolutionary mass uprising ceases to be ‘violent’ – for this is precisely the point at which a new power is born.

In fact In the latter part of her essay, Arendt turns to what might be considered one of her most crucial theoretical interventions by proposing a distinction between ‘violence’ and ‘power’. She disaggregates the series of terms often used by political scientists and theorists almost simultaneously – power, violence, force, authority, might and strength. The most critical distinction she makes – and this is of central importance for our discussion – is that ‘Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together.’ To quote her further:
‘Power needs no justification as it is inherent in the very existence of political communities; what, however, it does need is legitimacy… Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert…’
‘Violence needs justification and it can be justifiable, but its justification loses in plausibility the farther away its intended end recedes into the future. No one will question the use of violence in self-defense because the danger is not only clear but present, and the end to justify the means is immediate.’

More importantly: ‘Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course its end is the disappearance of power.’

Arendt’s reflections are food for serious thought. For one thing, they draw attention to a very simple but never acknowledged fact: Violence is the symptom of the crisis of power. Put differently, when the figureheads of power lose legitimacy, violence steps in. She gestures to texts by revolutionary theorists (presumably also Engels’ ‘Introduction’ to Class Struggles in France) that talk of the difficulties of armed insurrections in the context of the ‘increased destructive capacities of weapons’ at the disposal of governments. She then proceeds to analyze this proposition. The gap between the state-owned means of violence, she argues, has always been far beyond what people can muster – beer bottles, Molotov cocktails or guns. ‘In a contest of violence against violence the superiority of the government has always been absolute’, she argues. Then what accounts for the success of revolutions? In a move as profound as it is novel, Arendt suggests that ‘this superiority lasts only so long as the power structure of the government is intact – that is so long as commands are obeyed.’

‘When this is no longer the case the situation changes rapidly. Not only is the rebellion not put down, the arms themselves change hands, sometimes within a few hours.’ When commands are no longer obeyed, the means of violence are of no use. This is the next stage of what Lenin called ‘dual power’ – the power of the soviets or counter institutions of popular power standing in opposition to state power. Not all situations of dual power will lead to a dissolution of the old power but when it happens, ‘arms themselves change hands’ and an armed uprising is no longer necessary. This is the secret of the many bloodless revolutions – including the October revolution in Russia. It is also the secret behind the fall of the Soviet empire and the fall of the Berlin wall in more recent times. When an uprising is a truly popular uprising, it has no need for armed combat. Troops themselves change sides. Just as an aside, it is important to underline that the October revolution was a really popular uprising even though the Bolsheviks themselves were a minority in the Soviets. Lenin’s ‘genius’ lay in taking over these institutions of popular power in exactly the way that Sorel feared new minorities would usurp power in the name of the people.

The question of revolutionary violence needs to be seen in this perspective. Violence – the nihilistic violence – undertaken by Maoist armies are undertaken by a handful of quasi-military dalams. Each dalam has not more than ten to fifteen fighters – that is about all. In the best of instances, dalam members constitute no more than a couple of hundred militants. Their support, if and when it exists, is because democratic channels of organizing and fighting are simply not allowed to exist by the short-sighted Indian state and the local vested interests. The Maoist ideologue with whom I began this discussion was betting on his best bet – the Indian state. He and the Indian state are in a permanent compact: each provides the other with its raison d’etre. One need only look at reports produced by Maoist sympathizers – not agents of the state – to realize that in regions ‘governed’ by Maoist ‘Sanghams’ (in Chhattisgarh or Gadchiroli, for instance), no dissent or alternative kinds of resistance to the state is allowed to exist. What exists is an authoritarian set up where any dissenting person can only meet one fate – death. We can also see in these reports how, not unlike the fascist LTTE in Sri Lanka, families are forced to ‘contribute’ young children to ‘the movement’ (of course these reports sound almost apologetic when they narrate such matters).
Critique of this kind of cult of violence is not Gandhian. It can be made from impeccably Marxist positions as well.

12 thoughts on “Reflections on Revolutionary Violence”

  1. An excellent piece.

    There’re just two things I wish to ask. You’ve cited Arendt’s observation that power and violence are opposites— what if there’s a symbiosis? Further, the question of visibility or invisibility of power is mostly dependent on the position that one occupies in a specific field of power; “left to its own course its end is the disappearance of power”. Violence as inversely proportional to power, isn’t this a bit simplistic?

    The disappearance of the middle ground is old as the 1848 C Manifesto; the “Which side are you on?” question is centuries older. All utopian social movements (I’m not using the word ‘utopian’ in a pejorative sense, believe me) argue that the end justifies all, whatever the means, whether it’s the symbolic storming of the Winter Palace, or different versions of Robespierre’s guillotine creating terror, dissolution, or nostalgia in different societies.

    But what if, what if there never was an end in the first place, but an all-consuming means that is at the same time self-justificatory and self-augmenting?


  2. Hi Aditya great post. I have been thinking about the question of violence in Nepal’s context.

    With the Maoist victory in elections here, there appears to be, in many quarters, a retrospective justification of the war they waged and the violence that accompanied it. Those who occupied the middle ground during those years – I do not mean the 2002-2006 period when there was an autocratic king in power but the 1996-2002 period when there was a democratically elected government – are now being forced to re-examine their fundamental assumptions. The stand they took then was that the Maoist decision to pick the gun was wrong; that Nepal needed a ‘social’ not an armed revolution, the kind of everyday struggles you mention; that there was despite the presence of a constitutional monarchy enough democratic space to wage those struggles without the violence; that the state reaction and suppression was equally, if not more, misplaced. The Maoists accused this section of siding with status quo and being agents of ‘Indian expansionism and royal feudalism’. The state accused them of being wooly headed liberals whose positions (against army human rights abuses for example) were indirectly helping the Maoists.

    Nepal’s war took a different turn. The king’s takeover meant that there was a realignment of forces. Those representing the middle ground were put in an uncomfortable spot for the Maoists could turn around and say that with a king around, nothing would change; and it gave the Maoist war a legitimacy that it did not possess when it was fighting the mainstream political parties.

    The parties and the Maoists came together and there was a People’s Movement. And that brings me to your point about how armed combat is unnecessary when there is a truly popular uprising. What happened here in April 2006 when millions were on the streets was an example of that – an example that the Indian left of all shades can learn a lot from given their diminishing interest/efforts towards popular mobilisation. But I digress.

    There are now two narratives about that popular uprising. The political parties and the broad liberal democratic constituency, who were uncomfortable with the Maoist violence, saw it a democratic victory, viewed the king surrendering power as the victory of non violent people’s power. They emphasise largely on the 19 day mass movement as the turning point. The Maoists, who had a major role in mobilising people on the streets, saw it as the culmination of their People’s war and insisted that they were responsible for the consciousness that got people to the streets. They emphasise on the contribution of both the ten year war and the mass movement. The question here is – did armed combat help pave the way for the non violent uprising? Or was the popular uprising a rejection of armed combat on all sides, for it forced the king out, pushed the army back to the barrack and also forced the Maoists to come to a peace process and give up the war? How does one see the inter-connections between a violent war and popular movement?

    The way one looks at the Maoist decision to pick the gun and then to engage in this peace process, and the way one understands their election victory, has both theoretical and immediate practical implications.

    For many, the politics of violence is now legitimised. On the streets here in Kathmandu, or in the Tarai when multiple armed groups have sprung up fighting for ethnic rights, in the ‘post insurgency, moral-legal vacuum’, to borrow a phrase from the thinker C K Lal, picking up the gun is fine. An insurgent from one of the ethnic groups told me recently, ‘Didn’t the Maoists do it? And see they are in power now? Why can’t I pick up the gun if I want to be heard in Kathmandu? If the state can engage with the Maoists and then the Maoists can take over the state, why should the same standards not be applied to me? Boss, Maobaadi se humne yeh seekha hai ki bandook utha aur mantri bano.”

    Let me go back to the middle ground I started with. They contest this version put out by the new insurgents. They see the Maoist engagement with democratic politics as an admission of the limits and futility of violence by the former rebels. And unlike the Maoists, who see the election victory as a justification of the war, these people see it as the justification of the Maoist decision to end the war. A human rights activist said, “The people patted their back for it by voting for them.”

    Do events in Nepal represent a victory of the political process over militaristic violence? Is it a fusion of ‘Gandhian approach’, not in the derisive sense your Maoist friend meant it but in a more constructive way, and the Maoist doctrine? All of us here are struggling with the questions on a day to day basis without knowing the answers. Your post helped in thinking through these issues more deeply.


  3. Mr Nigam, is the violence of the Maoists “mindless and nihilistic” or is it the outcome of an ideology that sees it as strategy? It can’t be both mindless/nihilistic and strategic – but you seem unable to decide which it is. “What has violence ever achieved?”, you ask – and there is already an assumption in that question – were it to achieve or be shown to achieve something – as strategy – it would be admissible. Would you be less critical of Maoist violence if it were more efficient – is this really a critique of violence when it’s inefficient? You quote Arendt, but she saw violence as always instrumental – by definition, in her analysis, it cannot be mindless. Violence, because instrumental, has a telos in Arendt’s analysis – its telos is power: where power is not total, there is violence, when violence is left to its own course, total power results. Arendt was of course, ever alive to the possibility of indeterminable results, contingency and unpredictability: violence aims at a but cannot guarantee a result – whatever dreams of perfection the technocratically minded may have about it. Its efficacy can only ever be understood in hindsight, not in the act itself.

    I am also surprised at your invocation of the “everyday” as a realm of struggle somehow devoid of violence. Surely you are aware of a long tradition of Marxist thought – Lefebvre comes to mind – in which this “everyday” is seen as a classic bourgeois move of reading of the world in its own image. Not everyone has an “everyday” – whose everyday are we talking about here? And what of say, Adorno and Benjamin, who saw violence as integral to, rather that a deviation from, the everyday of the liberal state?

    You conclude, apparently drawing on Arendt: “When an uprising is a truly popular uprising, it has no need for armed combat.” She is talking in the first instance though, of a “contest of violence against violence” and arms are very much part of this contest. Violence is a part of the rhetoric that creates a “truly popular” uprising. (And yes, I think violence needs to be looked at as rhetoric and performance – not any less instrumental for being that).


  4. Dear Prashant, Tilaka, D,
    I think there are a lot of important issues raised in all three comments which, in a way, help me to elaborate issues bracketed in the main post. Interestingly, I also find that there is a lot a common ground, especially in Prashant’s and Tilaka’s comments.
    In the first place, D, I agree that this relentless attempt to polarize the situation and eliminate the middle ground is quite old and characteristic of all messianic utopian movements. Just that in versions of Marxism that play on the idea of hegemony or overdetermination etc (Gramsci, Althusser, Laclau), there has been some attempt to broaden the theoretical space between the two extremes.
    As for the relationship between popular movement and violence, I had not spelt out the relationship in detail. However, I think that my discussion of Sorel was meant to underline that parallel or analogous to the ‘proletarian general strike as myth’, there is something very creative and powerful in the myth of insurrection – a call to arms that need not necessarily glorify the cult of blood and gore that Prasanta refers to in his fascinating guest post. In fact, they do not even eventually need to resort to arms in the final instance – this is in my view the Arendtian ‘supplement’ to Sorel. I should have clarified that I do not really subscribe to a Gandhian position on violence/ nonviolence. In fact, I have always believed that in a country like ours, where even a panchayat election is never a peaceful affair, where everyday caste violence is a routine affair, it is difficult indeed to tread the Gandhian path of nonviolence. In fact, Arendt’s own observation on Gandhi is interesting in this regard: it could only have worked with an adversary like British colonialism, not with say the Nazis.

    Prashant, I do agree that the retrospective attempt to justify Maoist violence gives unprecedented legitimacy to it and to that extent, devalues the nonviolent popular uprising. I think that this ‘dialectic’ is quite complicated and we cannot really pronounce anything yet on its factual empirical side. We could nevertheless say that most popular revolutionary movements or armed struggle have not really felt the need to kill people as a method of political action as a rule.
    This brings me to Tilaka’s comments.

    ‘Mr Nigam, is the violence of the Maoists “mindless and nihilistic” or is it the outcome of an ideology that sees it as strategy? It can’t be both mindless/nihilistic and strategic – but you seem unable to decide which it is. “What has violence ever achieved?”, you ask – and there is already an assumption in that question – were it to achieve or be shown to achieve something – as strategy – it would be admissible.’

    I think you are right Tilaka, to point out the logical contradiction but you will surely agree that I am not doing a logical exercise here. I am also not proceeding from the assumption that all violence is bad, always, irrespective of the context. Violence done in self-defense for instance. Thus, I am saying that Maoist violence does not stand up to scrutiny on both counts.
    I disagree with your rendering of Arendt that

    Violence, because instrumental, has a telos in Arendt’s analysis – its telos is power: where power is not total, there is violence, when violence is left to its own course, total power results.

    Let me quote Arendt herself:

    ‘Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course its end is the disappearance of power.’

    You say the telos of violence (according to Arendt) is power and Arendt says it is the disappearance of power. The relationship between the two is not of mutual exclusion but it is certainly of serious tension. They jostle together in the same space but are always in conflict.
    Finally, I did not invoke what you call ‘the realm of the everyday’. I was merely talking of the everyday struggles as opposed to capture of state power. I did talk of the small everyday joys and sorrows and the mourning that goes with each such tragic loss of life – mourning by the near and dear, which is a theoretically unmediated mourning. I did not intend to get into a theoretical disquisition on the everyday, which I neither consider as ‘free of violence’ (wonder where you got that impression when I was talking precisely of everyday struggles) nor merely a domain of mind numbing routine. Thanks nonetheless for your reading list; it will be very helpful if and when I do decide to enter that realm.


  5. just to correct you – the report that you cite is certainly not by maoist sympathisers. balagopal (and hrf) has been critical of maoist actions for quite sometime. it would be better if you stick to proper labelling while being critical.


  6. Aditya, thank you for initiating this discussion. I think this discussion is as important for Lanka as it is for South Asia as a region. It is a debate that needs to happen over and over again. The tragedy of peoples, youths and generations who have suffered so much would demand nothing less.

    Let me begin my response with a lengthy quote from Subcomandante Marcos, which I have quoted elsewhere as well, but I was reminded of it again as I read this discussion:

    “We were formed in an army, the EZLN. It has a military structure. Subcomandante Marcos is the military chief of an army. But our army is very different from others, because its proposal is to cease being an army. A soldier is an absurd person who has to resort to arms in order to convince others, and in that sense the movement has no future if its future is military. If the EZLN perpetuates itself as an armed military structure, it is headed for failure. Failure as an alternative set of ideas, an alternative attitude to the world. The worst that could happen to it, apart from that, would be to come to power and install itself there as a revolutionary army. For us it would be a failure. What would be a success for the politico-military organizations of the sixties or seventies which emerged with the national liberation movements would be a fiasco for us. We have seen that such victories proved in the end to be failures, or defeats, hidden behind the mask of success. That what always remained unresolved was the role of people, of civil society, in what became ultimately a dispute between two hegemonies. There is an oppressor power which decides on behalf of society from above, and a group of visionaries which decides to lead the country on the correct path and ousts the other group from power, seizes power and then also decides on behalf of society. For us that is a struggle between hegemonies, in which the winners are good and the losers bad, but for the rest of society things don’t basically change. The EZLN has reached a point where it has been overtaken by Zapatismo. The ‘E’ in the acronym has shrunk, its hands have been tied, so that for us it is no handicap to mobilize unarmed, but rather in a certain sense a relief. The gun-belt weighs less than before and the military paraphernalia an armed group necessarily wears when it enters dialogue with people also feels less heavy. You cannot reconstruct the world or society, nor rebuild national states now in ruins, on the basis of a quarrel over who will impose their hegemony on society. The world in general, and Mexican society in particular, is composed of different kinds of people, and the relations between them have to be founded on respect and tolerance, things which appear in none of the discourses of the politico-military organizations of the sixties and seventies. Reality, as always, presented a bill to the armed national liberation movements of those days, and the cost of settling it has been very high.”

    In reading Subcomandante Marcos, I can not help but think of the paths not taken in Lanka. Where did it go wrong? I am not speaking at the moment as a Lankan, but as a Lankan Tamil. And I am speaking as Lankan Tamil, as I think of the generation of Tamil youth decimated by the armed struggle. I can not equate myself with those youth, there is first of all privilege, and there is difference. There is the difference of caste and class to begin with that differentiated those who were to become the sacrificial generation and those who were to escape that brutality. And here I am not only speaking of those who went into the LTTE or were forcibly recruited by the LTTE, I am also thinking of the youth, men and women, boys and girls who voluntarily or were forcibly recruited by the various armed groups that emerged out of the Tamil community beginning in the 1970s. And when I speak as a Lankan Tamil, it does not mean I disregard in anyway the violence faced by the other communities whether it be the Sinhalese community or the Muslim community. If a generation of Tamil youth have been sacrificed, tens of thousands of poor Sinhalese youth have been killed or maimed in the frontlines of war, and a generation of Muslim youth have been evicted, killed or marginalized. The suffering and marginalization of the Up-Country Tamils of Indian Origin are also related consequences of the conflict.

    But I speak with the provisional identity of a Lankan Tamil (we call have multiple identities and none of htem are fixed), because how and from what position we speak I think is important. And I want to flag at least three issues that come to my mind, as I take Subcomandante Marcos’ warning to heart.

    One, any initiation of an armed insurrection can be a process that is almost impossible to reverse, it will bring about untold suffering on not only the cadres of the armed group, but also the people the armed group claims to represent. In the Lankan Tamil context, there was never this realization and nor the kind of debate that attempted to understand the dangers inherent in the armed insurrection path. The people as a whole have been bearing the cost for decisions made by the youth and sections of the Tamil nationalist leadership in the seventies.

    Two, any armed insurrection without being based on the people, is bound to be a disaster. And I know the term “people” here is hard to define. But in the Lankan Tamil context, it would not have been hard to conclude, right from the beginning, that none of the armed groups were based on the people. It was training camps in India early on and now Diaspora funding, rather than a base among the Lankan Tamil people on the ground that determined the capacities of these armed groups.

    Three, armed insurrections should not be allowed to constrict the space for dissent. If there is no room for dissent, it is a sign of a society’s deterioration from which it will be hard to re-emerge.

    I again emphasize that I bring these points as a Lankan Tamil, because I can not speak about the paths not taken or the disastrous path the LTTE has chosen for the Lankan Tamil community from any neutral position. It has to be a position from which we deeply care about our community’s future and it has to be a position of political engagement.

    For me, such political positions are important, because as Prashant says the Maoists in Nepal may justify their past actions looking back, claiming the only way forward then was through the armed insurrection. Similarly, the LTTE will tell the Tamil community that they have come thus far and there is no option but to continue on the same path. I think, the only way to challenge those positions is through engagement, and engagement can not be from a neutral position, but has to be from a political position. A position where I would have to politically challenge the LTTE’s politics or a position of solidarity from which I might have to question the politics of the Maoists.

    This is why the point about dissent is so important. Because the elimination of dissent, is an attempt to annihilate the possibilities of such political challenge and engagement. The neutral position of standing outside and asking as to whether the Tamil armed groups made the wrong move, or is the LTTE right in continuing the war, or what will the Tamils have without the LTTE etc, is a problematic way of asking questions. I would argue that was the tragedy of how the Tamil community engaged with the Tamil armed groups, few chose a position of political challenge (and those who did were often eliminated). We can not think of paths not taken from the perspective of conflict resolution, of those blindly supporting a struggle for “right to self-determination” and the many others who occupy the neutral space of analysing politics. Yet so many of those who debate the issue of armed struggle engage from the neutral and safe space outside, where they do not have to feel any responsibility for the disastrous consequences for the ordinary people in those places and communities that get sucked into that armed conflict. Rather, it would require risks, both political and otherwise of challenging the politics of the armed actors. And if it is an irredeemable fascist force such as the LTTE, then dissent and political engagement would also be towards politically defeating the LTTE.

    When I engage the regimes that control the Sri Lankan state, I may chose to engage it as a Lankan or a Lankan Tamil (I would not want to give up either of those identities and increasingly now I treasure my Southasian identity as I see the need for activism to look at issues common to the region beyond the nation-state boundaries). And again, the political challenge should be towards either transforming the Sri Lankan state, and if the regime resists such transformation, it should be towards the political defeat of that regime. In other words, such political engagement can not be different whether we are challenging armed groups, the state or for that matter empire.

    I have gone on for too long, and I am not sure if I am clear, but the broader point I want to make is that the understanding of the question of violence and armed insurrections, may not exist outside of political praxis.


  7. Mr observer. Thanks for your advice. Just one information for you…This is standard Maoist practice to label all critical opinion as opposition. Everybody knows how close or not many of these people have felt for the Maoists – and paid for it.


  8. Aditya, read your response yesterday – but had Mumbai on my mind (still do). Violence has been essential to the formation and the seeming dismantling of modern states. It is often a tacit, deterrent sort of violence which even produces the space in which “patient, everyday” struggles can happen. When and where the violence becomes direct, coercive and inescapably everyday (some are in that realm whether they like it or not), very much as an ongoing process of expanding the reach of the state, there’s either going to be unilateral genocide or multilateral violence attempting to stop that advance. Even the gentle, liberal Tatas can see that an obdurate adivasi’s life is less worth defending than whatever grand dream of development they bring. People in the wild west being colonized anew can see that, and they are not, as the caricature view of the Maoists suggests, coerced into taking up arms – they mostly do so voluntarily. I am not sure if you’re so far gone as to dismiss as utter fabrications the accounts of life in Maoist-controlled territory produced by ‘Maoist sympathizers’ who don’t understand theory so well, but obviously know regular humanist literature quite well. There’s no coercion described in these accounts. These writings are rapidly going into multiple printings in multiple Indian languages – who are all these people reading and spreading the word without a gun to their heads?


  9. Hope we’ll also have discussions on how 10 year old ragpickers are coerced into performing all kinds of duties for the state…and maybe also about how one should define violence and when it can truly be said there is none – is it just the absence of visible weapons and visible blood?


  10. I have been a regular visitor at Kafila and while rummaging through the archives I stumbled upon this article. I found the argument proposed by Sorel very interesting, yet at the same time I am not too sure whether I was perfectly able to grapple it. Since I have not read the original text by Sorel, I would really appreciate if someone could clarify it for me. Here is what I understood —

    Is he trying to argue that the revolutionary means should always be in sync with the general characterstics and life of the subject? Therefore, instead of militarization it is the myth of a strike which is more compelling? If my understanding is correct (which I doubt) wouldn’t it mean on a broader framework that when women engage in revolutions they must incorporate means which would be in tune with their life? Wouldn’t this be problematic from a feminist perspective then? For example, women should only use motherhood as a revolutionary tool.

    I apologize if my quandary appears to be foolish and irrelevant.


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