The ethics of solidarity are an interesting thing when it comes to violence. It’s weird enough that I come to it from the position of ethics rather than dried out economic relationships, which immediately cuts against more vulgar elements of Marxist thinking about the term. I think this is important however, because we’re talking about something which is strategic and needs to appear to have ethics as a precondition for building political support for the oppressed.
Let me set a counter-factual scene and reach for a European analogy.
Britain sleeps whilst the Spanish Civil War wages. Eventually, its government donates money to Franco. Facing defeat on the home front, Spanish republicans decide to bomb a series of pubs and civillian offices in London and Glasgow.
There are those on the British left who would say that their comrades were duty bound to support these actions. It is often applied to things like the conflict in Northern Ireland and hte background of discrimination against catholic republicans.
The basis for justifying this would be that it advances struggle and speeds up emancipatory developments. It is also a core principle that it is up to the movement in Spain (or independence fighters in the North of Ireland) to decide what to do without external advice, despite them wanting solidarity from Brits with a decision that the British part of the left has no say in.
The second part of the justification is what seals this. It is pithily summed up in one phrase:
The violence of the oppressed is not the same as the violence of the oppressor.
It’s easy to identify with some of the logic of this. If you are Nelson Mandela, and are deliberatly shut out of the democratic process, what else can you do but disrupt everything? And when this is met with massacres or beatings, what can you do but arm yourself and get violent?
Likewise in Northern Ireland, when a militia is intent on burning down your whole street, are you not justified in filling it with sub machine guns?
Here is the ethical problem. In Northern Ireland there was a clear political relationship where one side oppressed the other and manipulated democracy to stop them being fairly represented as part of this strategy.
But there is also an oppressed/oppressor relationship between someone who is armed, trained and supported and someone who is not. There is also a big difference between whether you are carrying out the business of an oppressive state or non-state actor, or simply happened by grace of god to be born on the ‘side’ they claim to support – expecially if your position is as a regular worker and you are not particularly grand or powerful yourself.
What if you are bombed for going to the pub? Should your human value be dimished because you are protestant, or not a Spanish Republican?
Luckily in those days the left didn’t go around justifying attacks against ‘neutral’ and powerless civillians because their bosses backed the opponents of the left.
Now, there is often a mentality of ‘fair game’ if you happen to be, say, Israeli. And Maoists don’t even see there as being a working class in developed countries, which makes organisations like the Shining Path practically immune to the humanity of their victims.
I want to suggest an alternative principle based on the relationship between oppressed and oppressor:
“Violence against the oppresser is not the same as violence against the oppressed”.
That would mean a completely different approach to solidarity and political violence, based on the vitims of violence rather than those who carry it out. It means a less nationalist approach and one based a little more on the class relationship between people rather than the class relationship between the governments of states.
It means the left testing their views on what actions do or intend to do in practice rather than simply who carries them out, which I think is always a strange way to viewany kind of action. It encourages people to think about how political violence affects others, to be careful about it for human reasons, and to be more careful about doing it in a way which is more likely to get political support. It’s more ethical, more popular, and more class-based.
Unlike the ealier maxim, it can be applied to both oppressed states and individuals, is open to adaption even by those who are under occupation by ‘civillians’, but it means both a more morally and politically solid response.
It avoids blaming civillians for the politics of their rulers, and in doing so gives them a bigger weight in how the ethics of violence are considered.
It’s a much easier principle to sell if support for justified and emancipatory political violence is to be the aim. And let’s not forget, the solidarity of the past has plenty of good examples to offer.