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How To Bring About Change

The Case for Violence

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Franz Fanon.  In his tremendously influential book, The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon provided a handbook of sorts for revolutionary struggles ranging from Algeria’s fight for independence from France in the 1950s to the creation and rise of the Black Panther movement in the United States in the 1960s.  In the first chapter, provocative as always, which Fanon titled “On Violence,” he advocates for violent overthrow of colonialism, stating famously:

”Violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.”

Today’s smart money though seems to indicate that violence is not the answer in bringing about the change in the world that one wants to see.  Not only does bloodshed result in seemingly unnecessary tragedy, but it may not be as effective either in gaining widespread support, especially in places like the US that have such large security forces at all levels.   Martin Luther King, Jr. said as much himself in advocating non-violent action, believing that non-violence could attract more followers and elicit more sympathy, thus forcing the world to take notice (the “audience” as Arundhati Roy states in such a perfectly poignant way).  So, it is interesting that while the moral aspects of non-violence are frequently cited, the tactical is just as, if not more, important, even to someone like King.

However, my question is actually two fold:

  1. Is non-violence actually just another form of “violence” that is not physical?
  2. And if it is, then is it a necessary tactic to combat oppression?

Gandhi adhered to the philosophy of ahimsa, which translates to “do no harm” and advocates causing no pain to any living creature.  But, a boycott is designed to do economic harm to bring about change.  Strikes and sit-ins are designed to do the same.  And frankly, I see nothing wrong with that.  King also said that:

“Privileged groups rarely give up their privileges without strong resistance.” 

Therefore, it would seemingly follow that in order for one to gain concessions from those that are the “privileged,” it requires actually putting them in a position where they have no choice but to do so.  That is, it would be necessary to make the option of conceding better than the alternative of not conceding.  And, while win-wins can (and do) exist, achieving them frequently requires establishing some form of leverage as well and more frequently than not, I think this is accomplished by “violence”…that is making the status quo painful.

Furthermore, as Fanon argues regarding the cleansing qualities of “violence” (he did not include non-violent action, but I am), is it actually possible for true liberation and true struggle to be successful without it?  That is to say, if what one is struggling for is given to them, does self-respect and dignity remain unattained?  For instance, who is to say that if it is given, that it can’t be taken back whenever the “privileged” decides it best to do so?

Fanon was pushing his belief that groups that are oppressed need to be their own liberators.  They can’t be gifted that liberty.  Therefore, to achieve that goal, it begs the question of why so much time is spent trying to appeal with intellectual arguments to someone’s greater good for why they should allow for change to occur, instead of forcing change to occur.  I’m certainly guilty of the intellectual wrestling matches to a fault myself.  But, to me, it’s starting to feel like wasted effort to continually combat the Upton Sinclar theorem that:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

So why not convince foot soldiers whose salaries do not depend on “understanding it” to join the cause…and then “violently” take back the privileges?  Is it too hard?  Would it require giving up too much control?  Is it due to some form of paternalism?  To me, it seems to be a more effective approach (or at least a complimentary one) which appears to have been lost (but may be in the process of hopefully being rediscovered).



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