The Space Between State Violence and Revolutionary Violence
Day 81: Sunday, January 5, 2020
Lebanon’s socioeconomic reality has much in common with that of other Arab countries: a declining middle class (with all its negative ramifications); increasing levels of poverty and unemployment; and state institutions that serve the interests of the ruling, wealthy elites. Across the Arab world, the condition of the toiling classes, of the poorest and most marginalized, portends we have not seen the end of the regional uprisings that began in 2011. This time around, however, the mobilizations are characterized by more revolutionary elements, with no end in sight. For regimes are incapable of appeasing them with speedy and comprehensive structural change, because such a response would contradict their very nature as political systems anchored in a logic of subjecthood.
Today, “the people want to overthrow the regime” has transcended its improvised, populist beginnings to reflect more deeply the full aspirations of a class that has been failed time and again since the 1950s. Failed by military coups that annihilated popular rule. Failed by a political Islam that offered no solution beyond forced timetravel to the glories of the Islamic caliphate and reactionary sharia law. And failed by liberal calls for gradual reform within existing institutions, which proved out of touch with the social reality of the Arab world — where democratization, though fundamental, cannot by itself meet the challenges of dependent capitalism.
What is at stake in Lebanon today is the prevailing capitalist order: an oligarchic sectarian regime governed by a few families aligned with capital. With its origins in a colonial bourgeois order, this current version was forged in the flames of reactionary sectarian violence during the civil war. Over time, it also became more repressive, resorting to armed reactionary violence, psychological intimidation, thought policing, sectarian propaganda, and political dominion over a hamstrung judiciary. That is how we now find ourselves in a political system that works only for an exploitative minority who controls our economy and trade, plunders state revenue, and sits comfortably on the boards of banks and financial institutions, accumulating unimaginable wealth. It is this reality that is the crux of the matter; not, as some would have it, the criteria with which cabinets are selected, how corrupt they are, or whether their members have the right expertise and technical knowledge.
The first intifada of October 17 rose directly out of the system’s internal contradictions, exacerbated as they were by immediate economic, social, and environmental crises, administrative corruption, increasing external pressure from rival imperialist and capitalist powers, and the failure to deliver on representative democracy. The uprising began as a cry from the oppressed and marginalized who targeted symbols of the super rich and consumer luxury in downtown Beirut, and stormed and set fire to offices of bourgeois sectarian party leaders throughout the country. In southern Lebanon, workers enduring extreme poverty yearned to reject their lived reality in the face of repression and accusations of treason. In Tripoli, revolution came in the form of shredded posters that once bore the images of leaders of the ruling class, as residents chanted against all rulers without exception. Al-Matn, and specifically Jal El-Dib, witnessed its first movement against sectarianism and on behalf of complete political and social change. Meanwhile, the Beqaa and the North offered moving images of social solidarity.
Naturally, not everything taking place has been “revolutionary.” And of course, there are no ready-made recipes for what happens next. But that doesn’t negate the fact that declaring that a regime should be disposed of is a revolutionary act. Especially when the declarers include members and supporters of ruling parties, who — having been trained in the arts of opportunism by these same parties — start jumping ship before securing an alternative landing. In the process, they have been contributing to building revolutionary alternatives, even if unwittingly and undecidedly.
At this juncture, however, it is insufficient to simply document these spontaneous reactions to Lebanon’s material reality. We must turn to imagining the possibilities: We know that the more a regime opts for repression, the more a revolution turns violent. It is in this context that the uprisings in Lebanon so far have been a disappointment for those who believe change comes only through revolutionary violence. But what is revolutionary violence?
Launching rocks or Molotov cocktails in response to tear gas and rubber bullets, clashing with security forces, destroying bank branches, besieging the homes of politicians and bankers during a financial meltdown — all are spontaneous reactions to objective changes in the nature of class struggle in Lebanon. They do not constitute “vandalism” (the regime’s preferred moniker), nor do they amount to “revolutionary violence” (as some leftists would have it). Calling it “vandalism” denotes a negative position that is untenable given that such reactions are completely natural and par for the course in a struggle of this nature. Calling it “revolutionary violence” ignores that we have witnessed only two types of violence so far: organized state violence and unorganized counter-violence by the oppressed. The counter-violence is not being launched from a place of class awareness. It is spontaneous, defensive, and waged for survival from capitalist forms of violence and tyranny — from class exploitation, to state terrorism, to imperialist militarism. As such, it is neither revolutionary nor reactionary.
What is reactionary, however, is to reject this counter-violence under the banner of “nonviolent struggle. Such a position legitimates the monopoly on violence of the dominant side — the big capitalists, the state, or the occupation — at the expense of the exploited, the oppressed, the occupied. It renders state violence permissible, “lawful,” and labels the violence of the working classes as “vandalist” (or “terrorist” when it is popular resistance to occupation and imperialism).
Just as the counter violence we are witnessing is not revolutionary, neither is violence that is individualized or planned single-handedly by a political grouping not anchored in mass mobilization, such as explosions or assassinations. These are individual terrorist practices that undermine revolution and fuel counter-revolution by granting the state legal and popular cover for widespread repression, such as arbitrary arrests of popular militant leaders, criminalizing revolutionary discourse, or declaring a state of emergency.
Revolutionary violence is the violence that accompanies socioeconomic structural transformations in record-setting time, under specific combinations of internal, external, objective, and subjective factors (of which the most notable historical example is the Bolshevik revolution). It is violence that does not suck the air out of popular mobilization, or create a negative shock that reverses the support of the struggling classes before they have had a chance to organize themselves into an independent political and class force.
To be considered revolutionary, violence has to be decisive and definitive — it must not have mercy or compromise — but it cannot be led by an individual, a specific group, or even a party. Although a revolutionary party plays a key organizational and advocacy role at the appropriate time, the violence must be mass- and class-based. That is, it must emerge out of a process led by masses conscious of their role and of the imperative of marking a definitive break with the existing order and building anew on its ruins. Revolutionary violence must pave the way for a tangible transition from one order to another, following a long series of democratic struggles for real gains. These struggles involve political battles against a repressive regime, as well as direct confrontation between the people and the coercive tools of the state. This is what we can call the subjective condition of revolutionary violence: violence waged by the toiling masses that destroys or dismantles the state’s repressive arm, in the midst of a revolutionary politic that emerges out of class and social struggles. It is equally important that violence not be primarily motivated by revenge (though revenge be a component given the history of prisons, torture, killing, abuse, and/or severe impoverishment). Revolutionary violence must have an institutional, forward-looking dimension that lays the grounds for a new phase and decisively cuts with the past.
In sum, revolutionary violence has one primary objective factor — the regime’s level of authoritarianism — and two intertwined and complementary subjective elements: that it be mass-based and that it be organized. An armed mass-based revolution cannot confront the state and its militias without being organized by a mass-based revolutionary party. And no party, no matter how seemingly large and powerful, can confront the state and its militias without the masses (which also include the lower echelons of the army and police if they declare their allegiance to their class against the ruling class).
Violence is a thorny issue. The reasonable approach is to seek to prevent individual acts of violence (bombings, assassinations, terrorism), while accelerating the conditions that allow violence to become decisive, and therefore, revolutionary. The counterproductive approach is to embrace the ideology of the dominant class — to demonize violence in its mass-based forms — thereby freezing the evolution of revolutionary violence, while allowing the state’s reactionary violence to develop and excel without any mass resistance of note. Nonviolence is not a collective choice; it is an individual one (just like individualized violence is an individual choice that serves power not revolution). No degree of nonviolence proselytizing can contain how social classes respond to the uninterrupted social violence waged against them. With all due respect to the humanitarian intent in these calls: From a class perspective, these calls are devoid of humanity. They condemn the right of the oppressed to defend themselves against state repression as “barbaric,” as outside the law — that same law that protects the right to violence of the ruling class.
Ultimately, these counterproductive perceptions of violence rest on a flawed understanding of some key elements: the historical context, the balance of power, the methods and goals of revolutionary violence, and how far the masses will go to rid themselves of the status quo. Most importantly, they rest on a misunderstanding of what revolution is. For liberals, and for some left-wing tendencies, revolution triumphs when the rulers change. For revolutionaries, revolution triumphs when the system of the few over the many is destroyed.
The counterproductive approach is to embrace the ideology of the dominant class — to demonize violence in its mass-based forms — thereby freezing the evolution of revolutionary violence, while allowing the state’s reactionary violence to develop and excel without any mass resistance of note. Demonizing revolutionary violence (as liberals and constitutionalists do), is as bad as deifying it by deeming every act of violence “revolutionary” (as the sophomoric left does). Both serve power. Violence is not the difference between “revolutionary” and “reformist.” Not every spontaneous violent act is revolutionary. Just like not every nonviolent act is reformist — it may be revolutionary in some contexts, defeatist in others.
Violence’s biggest user is the state, the possessor of the most means of subjugation and oppression. The state wages violence as structural defense; as such, the violence of the police state is structural, systematic, and reactionary. Another example of reactionary violence is that waged by Islamist organizations or the far right. As for the violence waged by the masses defending themselves either from the state or from extremist organizations: it qualifies as counter-violence and spontaneous, neither “vandalist” nor "revolutionary.” It only turns revolutionary when it becomes armed, organized, and self-aware; i.e. once revolutionaries and revolutionary political organizations have taken root among the masses.
What the poor of Lebanon did on the nights of October 17 and 18, what they have done on other days and nights since, and what they will do again in their ongoing resistance against immoral wealth and police brutality, is neither vandalism nor revolutionary violence. It is the first step towards revolutionary violence — towards the right of the masses to be independent from the state and its organs, to express their pain and anguish, to fight to exist.