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FrontPage     Resources     Concepts:Themes



Arendt, Hanna (1970) On Violence, London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press


… The technical development of the implements of violence has now reached the point where no political goal could conceivably correspond to their destructive potential or justify their actual use in armed conflict. p.3

 …[The arms race’s] ‘rational’ goal is deterrence, not victory, and the arms race, no longer a preparation for war, can now be justified only on the grounds that more and more deterrence is the best guarantee of peace. To the question how shall we ever be able to extricate ourselves from the obvious insanity of this position, there is no answer. pp.3-4.

Since violence – as distinct from power, force, or strength – always needs implements (as Engels pointed out long ago), the revolution of technology, a revolution in tool-making, was especially marked in warfare. The very substance of violent action is ruled by the means-end category, whose chief characteristic, if applied to human affairs, has always been that the end is in danger of being over-whelmed by the means which it justifies and which are needed to reach it. Since the end of human action, as distinct from the end products of fabrication, can never be reliably predicted, the means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals. p.4

… The very fact that those engaged in the perfection of the means of destruction have finally reached a level of technical development where their aim, namely warfare, is on the point of disappearing altogether by virtue of the means at its disposal is like an ironical reminder of this all-pervading unpredictability, which we encounter the moment we approach the realm of violence. The chief reason warfare is still with us is neither a secret death wish of the human species, nor an irrepressible instinct of aggression, nor, finally and more plausibly, the serious economic and social dangers inherent in disarmament, but the simple fact that no substitute for this final arbiter in international affairs has yet appeared on the political scene. pp.4-5

Nor is a substitute likely to appear so long as national independence, namely, freedom from foreign rule, and the sovereignty of the state, namely the claim to unchecked and unlimited power in foreign affairs, are identified. p.5

… That war is still the ultima ratio, the old continuation of politics by means of violence, in the foreign affairs of the underdeveloped countries is no argument against its  obsoleteness, and the fact that only small countries without nuclear and biological weapons can still afford it is no consolation. p.6

… Anyone looking for some kind of sense in the records of the past was almost bound to see violence as a marginal phenomenon. Whether it is Clausewitz calling war “the continuation of politics by other means”, or Engels defining violence as the accelerator of economic development, the emphasis is on political or economic continuity, on the continuity of a process that remains determined by what preceded violent action. … pp.8-9

Today all these old verities about the relation between war and politics or about violence and power have become inapplicable. The Second World War was not followed by peace but by a cold war and the establishment of the military-industrial-labor complex. To speak of ‘the priority of war-making potential as the principal structuring force in society’, to maintain that ‘economic systems, political philosophies, and corpora juris serve and extend the war system, not vice versa,’ to conclude that ‘war itself is the basic social system, within which other secondary modes of social organization conflict or conspire’ – all this sounds much more plausible than Engels’ or Clausewitz’s nineteenth century formulas. Even more conclusive than this simple reversal proposed by the anonymous author of the Report from Iron Mountain – instead of war being ‘an extension of diplomacy (or of politics, or of the pursuit of economic objectives),’ peace is the continuation of war by other means – is the actual development in the techniques of warfare. p.9

… 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 he regarded the state as an instrument of violence in the command of the ruling class; but the actual power of the ruling class did not consist of or rely on violence. p.11

The new undeniable glorification of violence by the student movement has a curious peculiarity. While the rhetoric of the new militants is clearly inspired by fanon, their theoretical arguments contain usually nothing but a hodgepodge of all kinds of Marxist leftovers. This is indeed quite baffling for anybody who has ever read Marx or Engels. Who could possibly call an ideology Marxist that has put its faith in ‘classless idlers’, believes that ‘in the lumpenproletariat the rebellion will find its urban spearhead’, and trusts that ‘gangsters will light the way for the people’? [Fanon, F. (1961) The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press, pp.130, 129 and 69 respectively] Sartre with his great felicity with words has given expression to the new faith. ‘Violence,’ he now believes, on the strength of fanon’s book, ‘like Achilles lance, can heal the wounds it has inflicted’. If this were true, revenge would be the cure-all for most of our ills. This myth is more abstract, farther removed from reality, than Sorel’s myth of a general strike ever was. It is on a par with fanon’s worst rhetorical excesses, such as, ‘hunger with dignity is preferable to bread eaten in slavery’. No history and no theory is needed to refute this statement; the most superficial observer of the processes that go on in the human body knows its untruth. pp.19-20

… The one positive political slogan the new movement has put forth, the claim for ‘participatory democracy’ that has echoed around the globe and constitutes the most significant common denominator of the rebellions in the East and the West, derives from the best in the revolutionary tradition – the council system, the always defeated but only authentic outgrowth of every revolution since the eighteenth century. But no reference to this goal either in word or substance can be found in the teachings of Marx and Lenin, both of whom aimed on the contrary at a society in which the need for public action and participation in public affairs would have ‘withered away,’ together with the state. Because of a curious timidity in theoretical matters, contrasting oddly with its bold courage in practice, the slogan of the New Left has remained in a declamatory stage, to be invoked rather inarticulately against Western representative democracy (which is about to lose even its merely representative function to the huge party machines that ‘represent’ not the party membership but its functionaries) and against the Eastern one-party bureaucracies, which rule out participation on principle. p22-3


It is against the background of these experiences that I propose to raise the question of violence in the political realm. This is not easy; what Sorel remarked sixty years ago, ‘The problems of violence still remain very obscure’ [Reflections on Violence (1906, New York 1961, p.60], is as true today as it was then. I mentioned the general reluctance to deal with violence as a phenomenon in its own right, and I must now qualify this statement. If we turn to discussions of the phenomenon of power, we soon find that there exists a consensus among political theorists from Left to Right to the effect that violence is nothing more than the most flagrant manifestation of power. ‘All politics is a struggle for power; the ultimate kind of power is violence,’ said C. Wright Mills [The Power Elite, 1956, p.171], echoing as it were, Max Weber’s definition of the state as ‘the rule of men over men based on the means of legitimate, that is allegedly legitimate, violence’ [Politics as a Vocation, 1921]. The consensus is very strange; for to equate political power with ‘the organization of violence’ makes sense only if one follows Marx’s estimate of the state as an instrument of oppression in the hands of the ruling class. Let us therefore turn to authors who do not believe that the body politic, and its laws and institutions are merely coercive superstructures, secondary manifestations of some underlying forces. Let us turn, for instance to Bertrand Jouvenal, whose book Power is perhaps the most prestigious and, anyway, the most recent interesting treatise on the subject. ‘To him’, he writes, ‘who contemplates the unfolding of the ages war presents itself as an activity of States which pertains to their essence’ [1945, London 1952, p.122]. This may prompt us to ask whether the end of warfare, then, would mean the end of states. Would the disappearance of violence in relationships between states spell the end of power? pp.35-6

… Under conditions of representative government the people are supposed to rule those who govern them. All political institutions are manifestations and materializations of power; they petrify and decay as soon as the living power of people ceases to uphold them. This is what Madison meant when he said ‘all government rests on opinion’, a word no less true for the various forms of monarchy than for democracies. … However, the strength of opinion, that is, the power of the government, depends on numbers; it is ‘in proportion to the number with which it is associated’, and tyranny, as Montesquieu discovered, is therefore the most violent and least powerful of forms of government. Indeed one of the most obvious distinctions between power and violence is that power always stands in need of numbers, whereas violence up to a point can manage without them because it relies on implements. pp.41-2

… It is, I think, a rather sad reflection on the present state of political science that our terminology does not distinguish among such key words as ‘power’, ‘strength’, ‘force’, ‘authority’, and, finally, ‘violence’ – all of which refer to distinct, different phenomena and would hardly exist unless they did. p.43

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. …p.44

Strength unequivocally designates something in the singular, an individual entity; it is the property inherent in an object or person and belongs to its character, which may prove itself in relation to other things or persons, but is essentially independent of them. …p.44

Force, which we often use in daily speech as a synonym for violence, especially if violence serves as a means of coercion, should be reserved, in terminological language, for the ‘forces of nature’ or the ‘force of circumstances’, that is, to indicate the energy released by physical or social movements. pp.44-5

Authority, relating to the most elusive of these phenomena and therefore, as a term, most frequently abused, can be vested in persons – there is such a thing as personal authority, as, for instance, in the relation between parent and child, between teacher and pupil – or it can be vested in offices, as, for instance, in the Roman senate or in the hierarchical offices of the Church ( a priest can grant valid absolution even though he is drunk). Its hallmark is unquestioning recognition by those who are asked to obey; neither coercion nor persuasion is needed. p.45

Violence, finally, as I have said, is distinguished by its instrumental character. Phenomenologically, it is close to strength, since the implements of violence, like all other tools, are designed and used for the purpose of multiplying natural strength until, in the last stage of their development, they can substitute for it. p.46

… In a contest of violence against violence the superiority of the government has always been absolute; but this superiority lasts only as long as the power structure of the government is intact – that is, as long as commands are obeyed and the army or police forces are prepared to use their weapons. When this is no longer the case, the situation changes abruptly. p.48 Where commands are longer obeyed, the means of violence are of no use; and the question of this obedience is not decided by the command-obedience relation but by opinion, and, of course, by the number of those who share it. p.49

Power is indeed of the essence of all government, but violence is not. Violence is by nature instrumental: like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the end it pursues. And what needs justification by something else cannot be the essence of anything. The end of war – end taken in its twofold meaning – is peace or victory; but to the question And what is the end of peace? There is no answer. Peace is an absolute, even though in recorded history periods of warfare have nearly always outlasted periods of peace. p.51

Power needs no justification, being inherent in the very existence of political communities; what it does need is legitimacy. … Violence can be justifiable, but it never will be legitimate. Its justification loses in plausibility the farther its intended end recedes into the future. No one questions the use of violence in self-defense, because the danger is not only clear but also present, and the end justifying the means is immediate. p.52

Terror is not the same as violence; it is, rather the form of government that comes into being when violence, having destroyed all power, does not abdicate but, on the contrary, remains in full control. It has often been noticed that the effectiveness of terror depends almost entirely on the degree of social atomization. Every kind of organized opposition must disappear before the full force of terror can be let loose. p.55

… politically speaking, it is insufficient to say that power and violence are not the same. 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 it ends in power’s disappearance. This implies that it is not correct to think of the opposite of violence as nonviolence.; to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it. p.56

Nothing, in my opinion, could be theoretically more dangerous than the tradition of organic thought in political matters by which power and violence are interpreted in biological terms. As these terms are understood today, life and life’s alleged creativity are their common denominator, so that violence is justified on the ground of creativity. p.75

Violence, being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end that must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, violence can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals. Violence does not promote causes, neither history nor revolution, neither progress nor reaction, but it can serve to dramatize grievances and bring them to public attention. p.79

… the danger of violence, even if it moves consciously within a nonextremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will be not merely defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world. p.80

None of the properties of creativity is adequately expressed in metaphors drawn from the life process. To beget and give birth are no more creative than to die is annihilating; they are but different phases of the same, ever-recurring cycle in which all living things are held as though they were spellbound. Neither violence nor power is a natural phenomenon, that is, a manifestation of the life process; they belong to the political realm of human affairs whose essentially human quality is guaranteed by man’s faculty of action, the ability to begin something new. And I think it can be shown that no other human ability has suffered to such an extent from the progress of the modern age, for progress, as we have come to understand it, means growth, the relentless process of more and more, of bigger and bigger. p.82

Again, we do not know where these developments will lead us, but we know, or should know, that every decrease in power is an open invitation to violence – if only because those who hold power and feel it slipping from their hands, be they the government or be they the governed, have always found it difficult to resist the temptation to substitute violence for it. p.87 

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