Revolutionary Violence

12 April 2010


Eugène Delacroix's 'La Liberté guidant le peuple' is often employed as a symbol of revolution.

Some time ago, in Marcuse on the Post-WWII Settlement and in Arming the People, I discussed a lesser-known quote from Marcuse that I had plucked out of his posthumously collected papers. The passage I quoted was this:

“Capital has created (not only in the fascist states) a terroristic apparatus with such striking power and ubiquitous presence, that the traditional weapons of proletariat class struggle appear powerless beside it. The new technology of war and its strict monopolization and specialization turns the arming of the people into a helpless affair.”

(Marcuse, Herbert, Technology, War and Fascism, Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume One, edited by Douglas Kellner, London and New York: Routledge, 1998, p. 218.)

There is a certain strain of romanticism to be found among some Marxists, and even in Marx himself. (I discussed Marx’s romanticism in Globalization and Marxism.) Marcuse expressed this romantic strain of Marxism in the above-quoted remark. There is a certain wistfulness about the “arming of the people” no longer having any meaning, and that this situation was brought about by soulless technological development depriving the people of their heroic role only adds to the poignancy.

While in Marcuse on the Post-WWII Settlement I agreed with Marcuse’s melancholy conclusion, later in Arming the People I noted that the Rwandan genocide shows us that arming the people can still be frighteningly effective. I also recounted the predictable pattern of tyrants and demagogues in creating armed militias drawn from the people, although this latter tactic is not a genuine instance of arming the people (though I won’t here attempt to explain why this is the case).

I found myself thinking about this Marcuse quote again after I wrote The Swarming Attack a few days ago. There is a sense in which the revolutionist is a true devotee of the idea of the swarming attack. Many things today are called revolutions, so that the meaning of the term has become diluted over time. For the moment, I want to focus only on the sense of “revolution” that means an armed uprising of the people in their masses, intent on overthrowing the government that claims to represent them and their interests. This sense of “revolution” — we could call this revolution sensu stricto or the strong sense of revolution — should make one think of the Paris Commune and barricades in the street, the Storming of the Winter Palace or the Storming of the Bastille.

It seems to me that in the case of true revolutionary violence, not something engineered from above but a movement growing from below that spills over suddenly and unexpectedly into violent insurrection, a mass of people swarms over, around, and through any technology — whether social technology or hardware technology — designed to stop a riot. One could define the difference between a riot and a revolution such that a riot can be checked and stopped by riot people, whereas in a revolution the numbers of those involved overwhelm police and security services, and in fact the police and security services may join the revolution and turn on their leaders. I am not proposing this as a formal definition, as it were, but only as something to think about — a thought experiment, if you will.

Like the Lernaean Hydra of classical mythology, which grew back two heads for every head that was cut off, a mass of people transformed into a revolutionary mob cannot be cut down. For every revolutionary cut down, another two take his place, perhaps spontaneously offering themselves as sacrifices in solidarity with the revolutionary who has just been slain. There are three things I will observe about this:

1) a revolutionary mass recovers organically from setbacks,
2) a revolutionary mass expands exponentially, and
3) a revolutionary mass is a swarm.

This is a very strong sense of “revolution,” and I don’t think that it is found terribly often in history. Probably every revolutionist dreams of himself at the forefront of such a mass movement, though the dream is often disappointed. Usually mass violence exhausts itself and peters out; only in extraordinary cases does it grow exponentially.

Even acknowledging the rarity of such events, we can ask whether Marcuse was right. Has technology proceeded so far that the arming of a revolutionary mob is a helpless affair? Or is the appearance of such exponential growth in violence so rare that it only seems that arming the people is a helpless affair, because most instances of arming the people do not rise to the level of the kind of revolutionary violence I have been describing?

These questions have real-world significance for the swarming tactics that I began to discuss, however inadequately, in The Swarming Attack. The more I think about it, the more I see that a careful and detailed analysis is needed. If technology has outstripped the capacity of a mass of people to swarm around and overwhelm the representatives of civil order, technology may also have reached the point that swarming attacks on the battlefield might be equally pointless against hardened and technologically sophisticated weapons systems. If, on the other hand, the apparent pointlessness of arming the people in the face of technology is only apparent, then the battlefield parallel to this implies that even the most technologically sophisticated weapons systems are potentially vulnerable to a swarming attack. This is not a conclusion, but only the suggestion of a line of thought that I hope to develop further.

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