Peoples' movements and protests




Violence or non-violence – what counts is success



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By Jan Wiklund



We need to stop discussing issues of violence and non-violence based on some kind of moralizing terms. In politics there is only one morality: to succeed. All actions that lead to the other party succeeding are, if not immoral, at least hypocritical, i.e. you act objectively for goals that you say you don't have.

Thus, we must accept that violence is an acceptable strategy or tactic if it leads to the advancement of our political goals, but non-acceptable if it leads to the advancement of the other party's political goals.

And then perhaps the first step is to make it clear to yourself who you are and what interests you want to promote. If you consider yourself a representative of the majority of the population or the lower class vis-a-vis different kinds of elites and upper classes, you have to be careful with what you do because then you have a responsibility. Small groups that want to establish themselves as mafias, on the other hand, naturally have a great interest in violence because it gives them a kind of status. But that is beyond our discussion.

In general, violence rarely pays off for the popular side in a conflict. There are of course exceptions. But in most cases the other party, i.e. the state, is better at violence than we are, and usually wins a conflict if it escalates to a violent level. On the other hand, the popular side is often better at politics. One should therefore think carefully about whether to resort to violence. It only pays off in very special situations.
Since I myself have used political violence (The Elms battle, 1971), , and am proud of it, I suppose I can discuss this without being labeled as a pacifist.

Firstly, one can only gain from violence if the state is prevented from using its full potential for violence, or in any case more violence than one can oneself.

Secondly, you can win from violence only if you can make the state appear as "The Bad Guy", both before and during the confrontation. And it should not only appear evil to those who participate in the confrontation or even the conflict, but to the entire audience because it is this that determines the political costs to the state.

In reality, of course, these two are intimately connected. It is only when the state appears as The Bad Guy and does not consider itself to be able to afford it that it voluntarily refrains from using its full potential for violence.

This happy coincidence prevailed during the Elms battle, but it didn’t prevailed e.g. in Göteborg 2001. Not least because the violence in the first case but not in the second had been prepared by a year of peaceful public opinion and parliamentary footwork. But also because, in the first case, during this year of political preparatory work, the activists had succeeded in establishing themselves in public opinion as peaceful, decent people. Of course, the general political climate was also more favorable in 1971, thanks to the global wave of popular movements initiated by the anti-colonial movements and fueled by the European labor movement mobilization of the 1960s and 1970s, which made it easier to succeed.

There is also a third case in which the use of violence may be legitimate: if, through various happy circumstances, it can act to unite a whole class and not just a small gang. Type what takes place in a peasant war. But then dynamite is used; it might as well strike in the opposite direction. One of the largest single political mobilizations of the post-war period, against Narita Airfield in Tokyo during the Vietnam War, collapsed in a couple of hours because an activist killed a policeman. The majority of participants found this so repulsive that they gave up. Or an even more telling example: Blacks in the US have lost two entire generations because some of them used violence in the late sixties, in the eyes of the majority illegitimately so, creating a mass base for Nixon's law-and-order rhetoric and the conservative electoral majorities of the seventies and eighties.

Presumably the success is related to how legitimate the majority considers the state to be. In Iraq, to use an example, the legitimacy of the state is negligible and activist violence is thus more useful. In Sweden, the legitimacy of the state, thanks to a reasonably decent social security system, is still quite high and violence is therefore much more difficult to use.

I know that some activists defend their use of violence by saying that they have no chance anyway and that the opponents are even bigger villains than themselves. It is intellectual laziness. We fight politics to win, not to gain a clear conscience. And those who consider themselves lost in advance do best to step aside so that more persistent activists can take the stage.

Published by Folkrörelsestudiegruppen: