by Bill Sacks July 9, 2020
The ubiquitous nature of capitalist violence
This essay shows that mass organized working-class counter-violence is a necessity for us to free ourselves from the exploitation and oppression – including racism, sexism, and xenophobia – of capitalism all around the world. Under capitalist rule, violence is a ubiquitous and ever-present fact of life, used to intimidate and dominate the working class domestically and internationally. Moreover, the capitalist class has no choice but to use planned violence by their wholly-owned state power if they are to maintain their control over their national and imperial interests.
Following that we discuss the way that non-violence, either as a moral principle or as an inviolable strategy (as opposed to a conditional tactic), ties both our hands behind our backs and completely disables us from liberating ourselves from capitalism. Non-violence is based on the erroneous belief that capitalists have a conscience with respect to the lives of workers, and that they can therefore be persuaded to lessen our oppression, without our having to force them to do so. But their conscience extends only as far as the financial rights of their stockholders, if that far.
Those who doubt the necessity of counter-violence to abolish or temporarily reform capitalism fail to realize just how violent capitalism is for the working class. Violence is not only a sudden one-on-one event, such as a shooting, a beating, a stabbing, or a bombing, whether by cops, armies, terrorists, gangs, racist mobs, spouses, bullies, or anyone on the street or in the home. Violence is also an aggregate of actions that grind us down. These include first, the repeated and predictable assault, incarceration, or murder by the police of men (primarily, but also women) of color and the perpetual stress and anxiety engendered by fear of such encounters; second, the predictable pursuit, imprisonment, and deportation of undocumented workers and the fear it engenders; and third, the likelihood and fear of every woman that she will be assaulted or abused by men in positions of power. These are three among many examples.
Even more pervasive is the barbarous cruelty of everyday capitalism: poverty, unemployment, job insecurity, eviction, repossessions and property seizures, homelessness, inaccessibility of adequate health care or education, imprisonment, drug addiction, on-the-job injury, contempt from one’s boss, landlord, or drill sergeant, and much more. People in various circumstances suffer from these many different forms of oppression – blacks, Latins, Native Americans, and immigrants in much greater proportion than whites, though not necessarily in greater numbers. Few in the working class escape it altogether. Poverty, defined as the inability to sustain one’s self and family without going into ever-increasing debt, is suffered by roughly half the people in the US, defying the arbitrary misdefinition and consequent gross undercounting of poverty by the federal government. The percentage is much higher in many countries. Most important, capitalism’s deplorable divisions by ethnicity or sex are not the result of inherent ill will, but rather are necessitated by a system of vicious exploitation of the many for the massive profits of the few.
In order to assure that the workers of the world do not rebel against these heinous conditions, state violence is carried out through the armed organizations that “serve and protect” the capitalists and their property at home and their global system of imperialism. Those are the police forces and the military hierarchy, along with the support of courts and prisons – that is, state power. To maintain what amounts to a continual atmosphere of preemptive terror, not only are police forces enlisted to imprison and murder, but also the mass media and educational institutions are employed to deliberately foment and manipulate antagonisms among workers. That so many of the armed repressive outfits are currently pretending to discover their past culpability and reform themselves in the wake of George Floyd’s widely viewed vicious and casual murder (May 25, 2020) is an indication of the profound depths of their guilt. These institutions spawn and promote capitalist ideologies – individualism, racism, and sexism. These are enabled and exacerbated by working-class powerlessness, subjection to exploitation, and its resultant poverty.
Police are also enlisted to lure and encourage gangs to prey on each other and on the working-class, while the media encourage fascists like the KKK and Nazis who are then protected from the wrath of the working class by the police – all while pretending to “serve and protect” us. These repressive forces lurk behind the façade of “democracy,” in which, as the Russian revolutionary Lenin put it, we get to elect some of our oppressors on a regular basis. But the pretend democracy is foiled by removal of the working class from policy and then led by elected politicians who are mainly guided by self-interest and subject to the needs and desires of those with the greatest ability to lobby and pay.
Why does capitalism require the deliberate and concentrated violence carried out by police forces and the military? Because the small class of owners of banks and industry (the means of production) must have available, and must discipline, a large mass of people whom they can force to work for them and produce their profits, primarily by withholding any other means of survival from working-class access and secondarily by sowing divisions that weaken our resistance. Marx, in his monumental work Capital, showed that working for someone else involves hidden theft of a portion of the value we produce. (For a concise explanation of Marx’s discovery, see Political Economy: A Communist Critique of the Wage System, at http://www.plp.org/leaflets-pamphlets/pamphlets/.)
Throughout the history of class-divided societies for the last several thousand years the exploited classes have rebelled from time to time, particularly when their conditions have become unbearable and they have been able to overcome their divisions and unite in the effort. These rebellions have only succeeded, even temporarily, with the 20th-century Russian and Chinese revolutions. But usually, the exploiting classes have been able to control the masses through a combination of ideological deception to divide us against each other and tie us instead to our exploiters and, when that falters, organized violence by their state apparatus.
Most of the time state violence has taken a back seat, except in the most oppressed neighborhoods, where police violence is ever-present. But the powder is always kept dry for when the rulers need it. And during rebellions, disruptions, or the mere threat of revolution, vicious and murderous state violence always grabs a front seat. When violence is concentrated and extreme, as in Nazi Germany aimed at Europe’s largest communist party, it turns toward fascism. Fascism is always the last resort of desperate capitalists who much prefer ideological deception.
Even during fascism, deception plays a vital supportive role, as it isolates the most oppressed and therefore most rebellious sections. Lies are invented to turn most workers against the selected targets, whether Jews, Roma (Gypsies), people of color or communists. Thus our attention is diverted away from our exploiters and oppressors. In Germany the combination of deception and violence coalesced in the Holocaust and World War II, murdering 50 million people – half in the revolutionary Soviet Union.
Organized violence was foundational in US history. The mass extinction of Native Americans by European colonists lasted from the 1600s through the 1800s, with western expansion through “ethnic cleansing.” Organized state violence supported chattel slavery for two and a half centuries, and converted after the Civil War to chain-gang slavery and Jim Crow laws. Meanwhile the deception and oppression of institutionalized racism facilitated the theft of labor from Africans and land from Native Americans, whose continued existence was rendered unnecessary and undesirable.
Nor is this extreme state violence a relic of the past. Mass US-sponsored slaughter in Indonesia (1965-7) killed more than half a million communists and others. Indonesian communists had the unfortunate illusion that their election to office enabled them to share power with President Sukarno, until Sukarno was overthrown at the US rulers’ behest by fascist Suharto. Another US-sponsored slaughter began with the assassination of Chile’s socialist President Allende by fascist Pinochet (1973). A long list of similar events is described by William Blum (all references are at the end).
In the wake of World War II the US saw intensified repression. The McCarthy period (1950s) was initially supported by the entire state. Thousands of communists and sympathizers were hounded from their homes and jobs and many jailed in a deceptive attempt to warn the working class away from their most militant and consistent leaders. Unfortunately this was facilitated when the Communist Party USA, during and after WWII, along with the entire world communist movement centered in Moscow, retreated from the goal of further revolutionary transformation. In part this reflected an illusion that President Roosevelt – pursuing his goal of saving capitalism through some concessions to workers devastated by the Depression – was the friend of the US working class, and in part was to allow the Soviets to repair the devastation of the war while hoping to save themselves for another day.
Non-violence as a way of life, or even as a strategy for class struggle, keeps us enslaved
Ruling classes around the world promote pacifism, or non-violence, often raising religious leaders to hero status if they elevate non-violence toa way of life or even a strategy. These “heroes” conflate violence to support exploitation and oppression with counter-violence in the service of liberation.
As a tactic, abstention from counter-violence is often be necessary – due either to insufficient concentration of forces or to such overwhelming concentration that a demand that can be won without it. Such victories, however, are always temporary. But to prohibit counter-violent resistance altogether is to abandon an indispensable working-class weapon, either to force immediate reforms or, most assuredly, to overturn power relationships for the long term. Then, and only then, with the elimination of an exploitative and necessarily violent system, can humanity afford to eradicate violence.
Terrorism and non-violence: two sides of the same losing coin
While terrorism appears to be the opposite of non-violence, they are fraternal twins, exhibiting both similarities and differences. Terrorism is aimed indiscriminately, mainly at workers, and is a form of war carried out by the poor and powerless, while war is a form of terrorism sponsored by the rich and powerful. Anarchist violence, in contrast to both, may be directed against rulers, but bypasses the building of a mass movement to reap the victory. Mass revolutionary counter-violence, in contrast to all three, is needed by an organized movement of the exploited class to bring about the total abolition of an exploitative and oppressive system, leaving the victorious working class in collective control.
Non-violence as a strategy is the failure to employ counter-violent means even when tactically necessary, while terrorism is the resort to violent means when tactically unnecessary. Both are self-defeating as they aid only the capitalist oppressors – non-violence by allowing the oppressors to incapacitate the rebels and terrorism by destroying members of our class and giving the oppressors the propaganda advantage. Both appeal to religious ideologies that blind their followers to class distinctions, though non-violence has broader appeal to many workers. Both are encouraged by capitalist classes – terrorism usually from behind the scenes by would-be rulers out of power and non-violence quite openly by those in power.
While non-violence, unlike terrorism, is not a direct attack on members of our own class (except through voluntary submission), whether strategic or morality-based it unintentionally ends up betraying our class. Nevertheless, it must be recognized that there are many workers, students, and others who are more fearful than others, or who have ideological compunctions about participating in mass confrontations against organized racists, Nazis, and fascists of all stripes, as well as against bullies and others who threaten us on a personal level. There are also many persons who for reasons of religion, age, or physical disability, refrain from using violence in their own lives or in political confrontations. Yet many of these may understand the political necessity of mass revolutionary counter-violence and should be encouraged to play a role “behind the lines” during local confrontations, as well as during an all-out revolutionary attempt at the seizure of power.
Non-violence advocates, such as Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK), Cesar Chavez (leader of the farm-worker strikes in California in the 1960s and later), Mohandas Gandhi in India, and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, are celebrated as heroes by capitalists the world over. They are also admired by countless working-class people, though such leaders have, at best, paved the way for limited political transformation. They have never achieved economic liberation. India’s 1948 attainment of political independence did not free Indian workers from exploitation by the British Empire, nor was it meant to by either Gandhi or Nehru. Nor did the 1994 negotiated end of South Africa’s apartheid free black workers there from extreme oppression and segregation, that are now enforced by black rulers on behalf of invited international investors.
In India and South Africa, the political transformations were permitted by the imperialist overlords and local puppet rulers, whose economic interests were threatened by the spreading level of mass counter-violence. Thus have former colonial masters continued their economic exploitation through local reformist-minded rulers rather than through direct occupation, turning colonialism into neocolonialism. The non-violent leaders operated within the framework of capitalism, never intending or desiring to abolish it, but merely, at best, to gain within it some types of improvement in the situation of the working class – even if only partial and even if only temporary. At worst, improvement for the working class was not even intended by leaders who aimed only to improve their own place at the table.
Certain proponents of non-violence for the masses have not wholly rejected armed self-defense. Indeed successes of the US civil rights movement were enabled by the combination of armed self-defense and non-violent demonstrations and other actions. Participants have described the use of guns for self-defense by non-violent proponents like MLK, as well as the coordinated reliance on armed individual black workers in the South and the rise of armed-resistance organizations like the Deacons for Defense and Justice (Forman, Cobb – both of whom were Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, field secretaries). Did this hidden resort, by MLK and others, to guns for self-defense constitute hypocrisy? Was non-violence put forward as a principle but actually used only as an open strategy – perhaps to win favor from the national ruling class or white liberals, while putting others in danger? It matters little for the outcome of the civil rights movement, which, while doing away with certain legalized forms of segregation and thereby making an unquestionable and major improvement in certain aspects of life for black workers and others, did nothing to improve the economic situation, diminish the degree of racist oppression (only changing some of its forms), or increase the political power of black workers.
In celebration of that failure, the US ruling class has permitted, or even fostered, the establishment of streets named after MLK in nearly 1,000 cities. Granted that these have been a response to demands by black citizens of those cities and their allies, but similar demands for celebrating leaders who opposed non-violence, such as Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Robert Williams, or Rap Brown, are rarely if ever heeded. The working class cannot afford to accept as heroes the rulers’ choices. Advocates of strict non-violence may have been courageous and even fought for, and helped win, occasional short-term victories, but they have never aimed to abolish the exploitative system that necessitates our endless continual resistance. And by their pacifist denunciation of any form of counter-violent response by the oppressed, they blockade the one crucial path out of the capitalist canyon.
In fact, there is a several centuries long history of armed struggle by black workers in the US, both enslaved and nominally free , both during and after the era of chattel slavery. It surged particularly with the leadership of black veterans of the Civil War as Reconstruction ended and workers and farmers were placed under the thumb of Jim Crow (return to slavery by another name) and forced to protect themselves on a daily basis. Later, the rulers were forced to train black workers in the military to assert US imperialist strength in World Wars I and II. After WWI, during the Red Summer of 1919, many black veterans waged arm struggle to protect their jobs and homes, a struggle repeated in the aftermath of WWII. A number of courageous organizers and participants in these struggles, both armed and unarmed, were killed – an inevitable consequence of what is just as surely a war as any other war.
Despite the myth that it was non-violence that won the reforms over the decades, and that the non-violent leaders are the heroes, victories were often due to the leadership of black workers in the US Communist Party in the 1920s through 1940s, from the deep South to northern cities. Indeed, many organized white workers saw these antiracist struggles as a fight for their own interests, as well, and fought alongside their black sisters and brothers.
Nevertheless, despite continual struggle, and contrary to liberal commentators – both black and white – who one-sidedly claim that “we have come a long way,” sexist and racist wage differentials, racist wealth gaps, and housing and school segregation continue unabated, and in some cases have increased. No matter how much various forms of oppression change their outward appearance, there is no room in capitalism’s constant striving for maximum profits to provide everyone with stable and/or productive work, let alone with work that contributes to the wellbeing of the working class. A high level of unemployment aids all capitalists in keeping down wage demands by workers who are continually threatened with being thrown into the ranks of the unemployed. To prevent a united fight to end unemployment, the rulers make every effort to direct the attention of white workers toward the falsehood that their inability to find work is because black workers have taken the jobs rather than the jobs having been eliminated by capitalists to enhance their profits. Meanwhile the “surplus population” has to be kept drugged and/or under lock and key by the ruling class in a further attempt, often unsuccessful, to prevent the inevitable periodic rebellions.
In the mid-1900s, as lynching and some legalized segregation declined, what lawyer/author Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow” took the form of mass incarceration of millions (more than any other country in the world) – disproportionately of black, Latin, and immigrant workers The concomitant incarceration of many hundreds of thousands of white workers has largely been hidden by the media. The massive surge of incarceration has taken the guise of a “War on Drugs,” that was never intended to end drug dependency (Hinton). Rather addiction remains a way to control a significant portion of the most oppressed and therefore potentially most revolutionary sections of the US working class – black, Latin, Native, and white. This “war” incidentally serves the interests of self-building politicians who play to the racist ideological hammerlock. Only through treating drug addiction as a medical and public health problem rather than a crime, can any progress possibly be made. But this is not on the agenda of the ruling class, who require the pacifying effect of addiction, even as it not infrequently spills over and affects their own children.
Many temporary improvements actually resulted from mass counter-violent anti-racist rebellions in major cities in the late 1960s, notably participated in by black, Latin, and white workers, whether employed or unemployed. Many more jobs were opened up for black workers in industry, and affirmative action granted preferential admissions of black students to colleges and universities. Kept hidden was the fact that these changes also expanded opportunities for white workers and their children to obtain jobs and school admissions. However, as soon as the rebellions were pacified through mild and temporary reforms, conditions have, with a vengeance, resumed their worsening for black and Latin, as well as white, workers in the US (Piven and Cloward). Partly this was done as a lesson to rebellious workers (Hinton).
Now we are witness to widening income gaps, deteriorating segregated neighborhoods and schools, disappearing hospitals and health care centers, rising unemployment, and daily murders by cops, as well as mass disproportionate incarcerations. And this worsening of conditions for black and Latin workers drags multitudes of white workers down with it, producing similar if often less intense forms of oppression, necessitating the realization that it is in the interests of white workers, as well, to join their black sisters and brothers in the life-and-death struggle against racism. Most acute is the falling life expectancy of white workers, largely from opioid overdoses, themselves borne of despair over their own exploitation and oppression, and acceptance of a false idea of who is responsible for their conditions. Racism, in short, is not a black or Latin problem, but a working-class problem – and it is endemic in a profit system.
The necessity and possibility of revolutionary change
In addition to the necessity for counter-violence, in conditions when it strengthens our class and weakens our capitalist class enemies, the main requirement for successful revolutions is organization of millions of workers, in one country after another. The millions will need to grasp and adopt as their own the single-minded goal of seizing power from the capitalists and with that power completely transform the social order to a stable one that can sustain itself for the long haul, free of exploitation and oppression. This means, among many other things, recruiting thousands of working-class soldiers in the capitalist militaries to join their class sisters and brothers around the world in the struggle, and to turn their guns around against our mutual exploiters and oppressors. This was a critical part of the strategy in the 20th century Russian and Chinese working-class seizures of power.
As revolution sweeps from country to country, and there is no reason to believe it would begin in the US, each victorious section of the world’s working class will need to aid those yet to prevail, until the entire world is freed from this violent exploitative and oppressive system. The revolutionary eradication of capitalist state power does not mean that our own mass organized counter-violence can soon end. After all, if the capitalists employ such widespread means of incidental as well as deliberate violence even when the working class is not yet in a position to challenge them for state power, their assaults will be that much more concentrated and violent when they are so challenged. And after a seizure of power, those capitalists still in power in other countries will band together and fight all the harder to regain power wherever they lose it. This they did from 1917-1922, when many capitalist powers invaded the USSR in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the new Russian revolution, and in the 1950-1953 Korean War, an unsuccessful attempt to arrest the Chinese revolution, albeit not without killing millions. The world’s capitalists will use all possible means to attempt to retain or regain their grip on power, as they have in Vietnam (3 million dead), Iraq (more than 1 ½ million dead), and Afghanistan (still inflicting its death), plus countless proxy wars fought by aspiring capitalist rulers backed by imperialists.
Eventually, some time in the future, long after humanity has freed itself from want and misery and has transformed itself and its culture to one of cooperation and collective rewarding labor for common goals, with selfish individualism relegated to the ancient history books (or as Marx called that period, “prehistory”), a time can reasonably be expected when there will no longer be the need for a functioning state as a means of coercion and violence. Although, a social organization to coordinate and plan production with human needs will be necessary in perpetuity. Then, and only then, will humanity be able to turn its swords into plowshares, or, perhaps more appropriately today, its drones and missiles into computers and cell phones, and bring violence of any against any to a final end.
Alexander, Michelle The New Jim Crow (2010)
Blum, William Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions since World War II (1995)
Cobb, Charles E. Jr. This Non-Violent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (2014)
Forman, James The Making of Black Revolutionaries (1987)
Hinton, Elizabeth From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (2016)
Piven, Frances Fox and Richard Cloward Regulating the Poor (1993)
Stavrianos, L.S. Global Rift: The Third World Comes of Age (1981)