The Problem of Violent Revolution

This the sixth, and last, in a series of essays originally written by Carlos Clemente as assignments for an introductory course to market anarchism that he took at C4SS’s Stateless University. For the fifth essay, click here. For the first essay of the series, click here.


How to deal with violent action is a fundamental concept for anarchists, both in philosophical and practical terms. The principle of non-aggression is the key axiom on which the anarchist paradigm builds upon. And one of its most important applications is the anarchist approach to the problem of revolution.

Contrary to popular belief, advocates of violent revolution have historically been a minority within the anarchist movement. Although it could be argued, that in a narrowly logical sense, violence against the state would be justified philosophically by the anarchist as a direct application of the principle of non-aggression (the state is by definition the institutionalization of aggressive violence against the people), anarchists are, in their great majority, opposed to the idea of violent revolution.

The most obvious examples are anarcho-pacifists, with towering, historical intellectual figures like Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy prominently among them. But take, for example, what other anarchists not considered to be pacifists per se, have to say about the issue:

David D. Friedman argues in The Machinery of Freedom that “[c]ivil disorder leads to more government, not less. It may topple one government, but it creates a situation in which people desire another and stronger. Hitler’s regime followed the chaos of the Weimar years. Russian communism is a second example, a lesson for which the anarchists of Kronstadt paid dear. Napoleon is a third.”

In The Market for Liberty, Linda and Morris Tannehill argue that “[n]ot only is violent revolutionary action destructive, it actually strengthens the government by giving it a ‘common enemy’ to unite the people against. Violence against the government by a minority always gives the politicians an excuse to increase repressive measures in the name of ‘protecting the people.’ In fact, the general populace usually join the politicians’ cry for ‘law and order.'”

The Tannehills fear the tendency of revolutionary leaders to seize power: “…revolution is a very questionable way to arrive at a society without rulers, since a successful revolution must have leaders. To be successful, revolutionary action must be coordinated. To be coordinated, it must have someone in charge. And, once the revolution has succeeded, the ‘Someone in Charge’ (or one of his lieutenants, or even one of his enemies) takes over the new power structure so conveniently built up by the revolution. He may just want to ‘get things going right,’ but he ends up being another ruler. Something like this happened to the American Revolution, and look at us today.”

Libertarian and anarcho-capitalist professor Bryan Caplan argues that “when terrorism succeeds in destroying an existing government, it merely creates a power vacuum without fundamentally changing anyone’s mind about the nature of power. The predictable result is that a new state, worse than its predecessor, will swiftly appear to fill the void.”

The approach to anarchist revolution that I personally feel most identified with is that proposed by the mutualist branch of anarchism, or at least the version that Kevin Carson puts forward:

Mutualism is not “reformist,” as that term is used pejoratively by more militant anarchists. Nor is it necessarily pacifistic, although many mutualists are indeed pacifists. The proper definition of reformism should hinge, not on the means we use to build a new society or on the speed with which we move, but on the nature of our final goal. A person who is satisfied with a kinder, gentler version of capitalism or statism, that is still recognizable as state capitalism, is a reformist. A person who seeks to eliminate state capitalism and replace it with something entirely different, no matter how gradually, is not a reformist.

“Peaceful action” simply means not deliberately provoking the state to repression, but rather doing whatever is possible (in the words of the Wobbly slogan) to “build the structure of the new society within the shell of the old” before we try to break the shell. There is nothing wrong with resisting the state if it tries, through repression, to reverse our progress in building the institutions of the new society. But revolutionary action should meet two criteria: 1) it should have strong popular support; and 2) it should not take place until we have reached the point where peaceful construction of the new society has reached its limits within existing society.

As I write this post, a bloody wave of rebellions against tyrants is sweeping the Middle East, Lybia being the latest and most violent case so far.

Having immersed myself in the anarchist worldview during the last few weeks of this introductory course at C4SS, I can’t help seeing the conflict in Lybia as tragically doomed. Gadhafi’s murderous response to the insurrection was the perfect excuse for Western dogs of war to intervene. If the rebels manage to oust Gadhafi under these circumstances, they will have, at best, to be as responsive to the demands of their imperial benefactors as to those of their own people. At worst, the “democratic transition” process will be totally hijacked by the powers that be, and a new, yet western-friendly puppet-tyrant will be installed. All that besides the civilian deaths that will engross the massive “collateral damage” caused by the US-led “pro-democracy” military adventures in the region.

Despite the obvious ethical and strategic disaster that violent revolution can bring about, I am sure that defensive violence is perfectly justified, and I am careful not to discard any argument for violence without previously making sure I understand if it is based on a defensive stance.

I guess anyone who realizes that state capitalism is inherently violent towards humanity struggles with this issue at some point. In this regard, although I don’t share their views, I pay attention to what primitive anarchists such as Derrick Jensen say about violence, and I think I understand at a very fundamental level where their anger comes from. If anything, listening to them assures me of the crucial importance of advocating the non-aggression principle and aligning my whole life with it. Aggression is bound to provoke violence sooner rather than later, it is plainly and simply inevitable.

I give credit to people like Jensen for being aware of the basic truth that we have become dependent creatures of a system that is inherently aggressive towards the environment, and that sustains itself on perpetuating a state of war among us.

At some point, any of us might find ourselves losing a family member due to imperialist “collateral damage”, seeing our communities deprived of drinking water due to industrial poisoning, or being physically prosecuted for discussing and promoting ideas that undermine the “legitimacy of the state.”

If that time comes, all we might have left is to resist through violent means. We might have to kill and be ready to die for what we stand for.

And paradoxically, the realization of that basic fact strikes me as a necessary condition for being able to claim that one is truly alive.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory