Varied Notions of Violence

Varied Notions of Violence


By Chris Odinaka Nwedo

Violence is a notion subjected to wide-ranging relative interpretations. A significant number of scholars barely recognize the absolutely evil nature of violence. For these scholars, violence is a tolerable necessity in so far as it is not violence for its own sake. It is generally acknowledged that man by nature responds aggressively and defensively in the face of danger, in confrontation to ‘injustice’ and in the threat of denigration. Akam, J. B. observed that ‘violence springs from aggressiveness which is an instinctual drive that plays the same functional role in the house hold of nature as the nutritive and sexual instinct in the life process of an individual and species.1 For George Eugene Sorel, violence can never be outgrown, and if it were, that could not be progress, because it is not absolutely brutish. In the contemporary society, violence is increasingly eulogised and has become a dependable tool in defence of often strange values, especially, with the growing tendency to acquire and depend on weapons, armed militancy and terrorism.  

 In the society today, more like in the past centuries, ideology of hatred is on the increase with the ‘democratisation’ of violence and easy access to efficient instruments of violence. The society today seemed increasingly polarised by ideology of active violence and weakening inclination to peace. The increasing challenges of effective defence of the civil society gave rise to reinvestment in the tools of violence. Currently, nothing is more challenging than the fact that terror industry is insatiably recruiting more staff, increasing the effectiveness of its agents and planning more havoc. It is presumable that proprietors of violence are designing their tools of harm with great hatred and insanity and have led hundreds of their recruits into a trap that destroy them and the innocent others.  

The spread, sophistication, frequencies, coordination and precisions of terror related assaults in Italy, Germany, France, Americas, Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan have further reaffirmed the transnational nature of the disheartening trend. Fighting terror with violence, ‘war against terrorism’, as an official ideology however, goes further to valid the absolute relativity of evils of violence. The deadly clash of violent defense and violent assault have resulted inexorably to the bloody countenance of the contemporary society, besides the enormous moral damage, especially with the unlimited destructive capacities of modern weapons. For some this unintended damage is lesser an evil than submitting to the weird will of human brutes.

In opinion of Sorel, the success of the working class in the struggle against bourgeois despotic extortions rises and falls on the creation of a catastrophic and violent revolution with the power at their own hands. For Sorel, general strikes and the violence give the workers a sense of unity and a return to dignity.  But many scholars noted that it is both treacherous and unhelpful to counter the evils of violence by encouraging it wilfully. For this school of thought, the use of violence as a means of putting an end to terror and inhumanity to man is illogical and immoral because violence orchestrates horrible suffering, it is an intolerable stupidity.

Sorrel understood violence as the ultimate point of struggles of life.  He allegedly, said that violence could save the world from barbarism, as he equated violence with life, creativity, and virtue. Strangely, Sorel expended his life applauding violence. In some quarters, Sorel was seen as a socialist war monger. ‘He harboured a ferocious desire for violent class warfare and apocalyptic revolution. In fact, Sorel was so belligerent that he consistently used the word ‘peacemaker’ in a pejorative sense.2 Sorel’s magna corpus ‘Reflections On Violence’ is simmering with vituperative rhetoric against those social democrats who wanted to decrease socio-political tensions in pre-WWI France.  Sorel’s glorification of violence produced siblings adeptly schooled in acts of brutality. His models were embraced by fascist political movements, which he came to view as the true exemplars of his ideology. The Italian dictator Mussolini, in particular, seemed to have been influenced by Sorel’s thought. The Fascist movement that Mussolini led put into practice many of the Sorel’s prescriptions, especially the use of violence as a political weapon.3

In validating violence, Sorel was predisposed to a society modelled to suit never-end scuffle between the poor and rich, between employers and employees.  In his view, a socialist revolution could only be brought about by instilling into the working class a detestation of the bourgeoisie, not just hidden resentment and bitterness but open aggression. 4  Sorel is often interpreted as implying that in order for socialism to succeed, it was necessary to inspire proletariats with an efficient mythology, revolutionary violence, which he describes as adventurous, glorious and superior.  According to him, the myth which was to beguile the working class was the general strike. He conceived this as a complete catastrophe of violence, enclosing all the strongest inclinations of the working class.

However, Jeremy Jennings in an introduction to Sorel’s reflection on violence stated that the violence endorsed by Sorel was not very violent at all; but something little more than a few heroic gestures. This was so because Sorel was not a Jacobin socialist.5 According to Jennings, what distanced Sorrel from the ‘Robespierrean tradition’, at the centre of his thought was the distinction between the violence of the proletariat and that deployed by bourgeois politicians and their intellectual ideologues through the State. It was the politicians and ideologues, and not the proletariat, who resorted to wholesale acts of terror and repression in order to secure their own dominance. For his part, Sorel saw himself as nothing but a ‘disinterested servant of the proletariats.

Friedrich Engels collaboratively saw violence as a powerful force accelerating expansion and development of the society. He considered no scruple as he advocated force and terror tactics against those he perceived as anti-revolutionary agenda of the socialist party. According to Engels, there must be a fight, an ‘unrelenting life-and-death struggle’ against those who betray the revolution; an annihilating fight and most determined terrorism in the interests of the revolution. For Engels, in history nothing is achieved without power and pitiless ruthlessness.6 Engels revolutionary agenda lives the fate of all non-affiliates to perish in the revolutionary storm. He thought that the Yugoslavs in particular deserved to be wiped out and wanted Germans to use violence and terror against the Slavs. For Engels, ‘the next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary people. And that, too, is progress. Engels believed that races are unequal and that Germans have right to fight to conquer the world in order to subordinate it.7

And for Wright C. Mills, all politics is a struggle for power; and the ultimate kind of power is violence. This disparaging reference to power by Mills is contradicted by Hannah Arendt who quickly proved the purity of power as a product of collective will and infinitely justified by the mandate freely given. According to her, Power is the essence of all government, but violence is not. Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the end it pursues. And what needs justification through something else cannot be the essence of anything.8 Power needs no justification as it is inherent in the very existence of political communities; what it does need is legitimacy. Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert, but it derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together rather than from any action that then may follows. Violence needs justification and it can be justifiable, but its justification loses in plausibility the farther away its intended end recedes into the future. No one will question the use of violence in self-defense because the danger is not only clear but present, and the end to justify the means is immediate.9

Arendt noted that violence does not depend on numbers or opinion but on implements, and the implements of violence increase and multiply human strength. Those who oppose violence with mere power will soon find out that they are confronted not with men but with men’s artifacts, whose inhumanity and destructive effectiveness increase in proportion to the distance that separates the opponents. Violence can always destroy power; out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What can never grow out of it is power.10 Power can be acquired by violence but the price is always too high. Paradoxically, the cost of power by violence is paid not only by the vanquished but by the victor himself. The much-feared boomerang effect of colonialism upon the home government during the imperialist era meant that rule by violence in far-away lands would end by affecting the government of England.11 The reverse side and more credible fact about Mill’s ultimate power, violence, is that ‘rule by sheer violence comes into play where power is being lost; it is precisely the shrinking power of the Russian government, internally and externally, that became manifest in its ‘solution’ of the Czechoslovak problem—just as it was the shrinking power of European imperialism that became manifest in the alternative of decolonization or massacre.12 The understandable potential economic impotency occasioned by obstinate wars between Iran and Iraq forced mutual cease-fire which eventually dragged the unresolved strife to oblivion. The resumption of the reciprocal violence is further made impossible by the fact the Saddam Hussein is neither ready nor around and an endlessly crippling rain of sanctions proved too heavy on Iran. It will be insolence to harsh reality for Iran to drag crippling loads of heavy sanctions into unilateral assault on Iraq. In fact, it is understandable that situations in both Iran and Iraq demobilized and collapsed their reciprocal violence.

Max Weber defines the state as the ‘rule of men over men, based on the legitimate use of violence. According to Weber every state is based on violence. Equating political power with ‘the organization of violence,’ though significantly bizarre, makes sense only if one  accepts Marx’s conception of the state as an instrument of cruelty in the hands of the ruling class.Marx raucously accused the state of weaponing violence for the selfish ends. Similarly, Engels maintained that although the state did not invent war, from its very beginning, it embraced, legitimated and confiscated it and with the irreconcilable split of oppressing and oppressed class, state requires institutions of violence to maintain equilibrium. For Engels, the culture of war goes back to ancient prehistory, but it reached its fullness with the coming into being of the state. Education for power through force, exclusivity of rights, male domination, enemy images and armaments all date from prehistory. But the use of war for economic growth and the development of authoritarian social structures and the control of information were perfected by the state in relation to slavery, and later, feudalism and capitalism.13 According to Engels, the society by demands of economic conditions of life was forced to split itself into freemen and slaves, into the exploiting rich and the exploited poor; a society which not only could never again reconcile these contradictions, was compelled always to intensify them by means of violent struggle.14

Hannah Arendt believed violence and rage to be natural human emotion and to cure man of them is more or less to dehumanise or emasculate him. Absence of emotion neither causes nor promotes rationality. Consequently, under certain circumstances, violence … is the only way to set the scales justice right again.15 For Arendt, violence can be justifiable, but it can never will be legitimate. Paradoxically what justifies violence do always have limited value as it fades with passage of time.  Arendt noted that violence is conscious human action. It should not be naturalized or taken for granted or romanticized, but carefully examined.  No one questions the use of violence in self-defence because the danger is not only clear but also present, and the end justifying the means.16 According to Arendt, the term ‘revolution’ should be reserved for identifying fundamental changes in human ways of thinking and relating. She was convinced in the same way that ‘just’ wars cannot be tolerated in the modern world because of their destructive consequences for humankind and the global environment. So, too, are violent revolutions no longer warrantable, no matter how good the cause.17

 For Dike B. O. revolution is clearly distinguishable from rebellion or bloodshed. ‘Revolution is a product of reformation, nothing but a change for better. But man begins it by becoming a changed person.  Revolutionizing himself and becoming an example worthy of emulation, then attracts others. Unless we change our individual ideology, surely, there is no hope either for our leaders or our nation.18 Arendt objected to “the inevitable long-term desensitizing effects of violent means on the people who resort to them.19   She challenged Weber’s propositions ‘on the issue of violence.  She was appalled by his premise that all governments whether democratic or not rest ultimately on the threat of violence against the people. Rightly, this is an all-too-ready rationalization for totalitarian methods of governing.  It is not violence but power that is the essence of government.20 In her understanding, neither Karl Marx nor Weber really understood the difference between power and violence. Violence can destroy the old power, but it can never create the authority that legitimizes the new. Violence is therefore the poorest possible basis on which to build a government.21

 It has often been said that impotence breeds violence, and psychologically this is quite true. Politically, loss of power tempts men to substitute violence for power.22 This veracity is empirically demonstrated by wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan with the total violent campaign to uproot militants in Swat province. The ‘just war’ with whose aid Libyan dictator was displace left unquantifiable collateral damages in terms of loss of lives of the combatants and non-combatants. Today, Gaddaffi, the tyrant is dead and gone but the war is still on, more covertly, and surreptitiously killing and maiming those resisting complete annihilation. The clearly seen impact of ‘justified violence’ is the proliferation of pain, sorrow and death which combined to give the contemporary society all colours of war and destruction. “The technical development of implements of violence has now reached the point where no political goal could conceivably correspond to their destructive potential or justify their actual use in armed conflict.23 The justified violence in Sri Lanka by the military to ‘clean up’ the nation of Tamil Tiger rebels who wanted the central governing authority uprooted terminated in painful caricature of human nature as men, women and children were weeded with state sponsored bombs. The wars in DRC, Sudan, Nigeria, and Afghanistan and so on are illuminating lucid testimonies of the poverty of violence. In Nigeria for instance, the state sponsored violence against Islamic militants in the North eastern region of the country uprooted, destabilised and caused transplantation of millions non-combatant civilians to refugee camps scatted all over the country. In spite of the all-out violence, the Islamic terrorists have continued to mutate and proliferate. The confrontations with Nigeria’s security agencies proved them resilient and on ground. The decade’s attacks by the government forces to decimate the groups have not made them less effective in the attacks and kidnappings for ransom. To prove their invincibility, the terrorists allegedly under ‘air’ and ‘land’ bombardments went to a school in Chibok and kidnapped over 280 girls. The groups now target girls’ schools and come regularly to pack them away. It is the Nigerian people that are bearing the heavy brunt of the violent campaigns. The supposed war of chastisements to weaken and decimate the treacherous Islamists have been proved grossly impotent. ‘War is unglamorous and ineffective as a political force, yet it remains because we have not found an adequate replacement for it.24 Arendt suggested that where there was lack of power or where power was slipping away, there was greater potential for violence. Lack of power begets violence.

 Philosophical schools such as the ‘natural law’ and ‘positive law’ diametrically legitimate violence.  The justification of suicide and indeed abortion often derives strength from these polarized schools. Some scholars have argued that the exercise of right of self-determination continues even onto death.25 For Kamlah, the right of human beings to die is the moral permission to liberate oneself from a very difficult and unreasonable life after a quiet and mature consideration…26  Natural law proponents have the propensity to validate the use of violent means to just ends while the school of positive law, moralises violence in pursuit of just end.‘However, both schools, natural and positive law, share a common mistake: natural law protagonists attempt by the justness of the ends, to ‘justify’ the means, while the positive law counterparts ‘guarantee’ the justness of the ends through the justification of the means.27

The emphasis here is the exposure of the distasteful impact of violence whether to oneself or to others. Violence is given rise by conflict. Violence to oneself justifies suicide. The basis of this justification is the conviction in some quarters that man is responsible for himself as a free being and that man has inviolable right to decree for himself. For Jean Amery, man has right to say no to life as long as he is living a life without dignity, humaneness and freedom.28  According to Lenz Hamann ‘a fundamental right to dispose of one’s life is derivable from the right to life.29 Joachim Wagner in Okechukwu S.N. maintained that decision to die is an expression of self-determination; and the contention that suicide does not contribute to but destroys human personality is formalistic and fails to recognise that a fundamental right to life must not only guarantee its active exercise but also its non-exercise. The exercise of right to life equally implies a right to its non-exercise.30 Also Walter Sax, also in Okechukwu collaborated Wagner. For Sax, ‘a person who commits suicide does not act against a strange interest. He deals primarily with his own interest, and in this case, he simply says ‘no’ to his own life actively; he does not violate life rather he abandons it.31 Interestingly, Gunter Erbel insisted that the state should abandon decision on life to personal faith and conscience of each individual to decide.

 Conflict with the other is a wider expression of conflict within self. Suicide, abortion and other varied ramification of violence spring from conflict. According to Aldea and Roseau ‘as a social product, violence is intimately linked to lifestyles, world view, culture, and forms of social organization. Consequently, it can assume different forms, two of which typically stand out: state or organized violence and domestic or common violence.32 Violence is produced when an individual or group acts unilaterally, imposing its opinion without allowing space for negotiation; when the power of each side is not equal. This imposed action can affect the body, life, future, or plans of the other, whether of an individual or group.33

Not every conflict leads to violence, some ‘conflicts’ have values considerably positive. For instance, the ‘conflicts’ relative to negative and positive polarities are demonstrated in productivity. Again the ‘conflict’ (competition) that finds expression in endemic struggle for material survival or economic supremacy gravitated to rapid economic or physical development of the world. By this I definitely refer to conflicts which according to Marx existed as a result of strife over control of means of production. These are conflicts that propel the world into hypertensive productivity and unprecedented stride for profits and having. It empowered and democratized the insatiable tendencies to acquire, spreading in effect capitalist spirit of productivity that compelled the civil society and its individuals into endless modification of that which is already modified. This unlimited opportunity of having lucidly distinguished infrastructure, the socialist and capitalist worlds, creating gulfs of disparities in the standards of living. I am concerned and deprecated the retrogressive conflicts, destruction, proliferation of pains and destitution which for centuries without end dragged the dignity of human person into the miasma of dirtiness, conflict in the context of which the civil society is dissected irreconcilably in an implacable enmity, hatred and wars of mutual destruction. These conflicts fed avariciously on the essential unity, stability, progress or development indispensable in the realization of the ideals of civil society, the conflicts which metamorphosed into what is described as ‘the apocalyptic’ chess game between the superpowers played according to the rule: “if either ‘wins’ it is the end of both. This reflection targeted and condemns in absolute terms conflict that made terrorist destruction thriving business. It horrendous that violence is overwhelming the world today. Both state and non-state actors have resorted to violence as a means to every end. The use of violence as tool of every of bargain is a comprehensive sign that is doom imminent.


  1. Akam, J. B.   Man: Unique But in Plural,   Enugu, Nigeria Snaap. Press Limited (1991) p.10
  2. George Sorel reflection on violence (1908)
  4. Georges Sorel – Reflections On Violence (1908
  5. See Jeremy Jennings in Georges Sorel: Reflections on Violence  reversed edition, Cambridge University press p.xxi
  6. See Friedrich Engels in John J. Ray Friedrich Engels: Racist and German nationalist@
  7. John J. Ray Friedrich Engels: Racist and German nationalist@
  8. Hannah Arendt (1969) a special supplement: a reflection on violence@
  9. Hannah Arendt (1969) a special supplement: a reflection on violence op.cit.
  10.  ibid. .
  11.  ibid  .
  12.  Iibid.
  13.  Culture of War@
  14. Engels: Violence and Origins of State, 1884@
  15. Arendt H. in Akam J.B. (1991) op.cit.
  16. Webster, American Heritage Dictionary
  17. Arendt H. in Akam J.B. (1991) op.cit.
  18. Dike B.O.(1988) Man with Man: political Psychology, Ihem Davis Press Ltd Owerri p.12
  19. See Hannah Arendt on the Concept of Power
  20. ibid.
  21. ibid
  22. see quotation in Hannah Arendt(1969) op.cit.
  23. HannahArendt(1969) a special supplement: a reflection on violence, op.cit.
  24. Biblio Chart:  Hannah Arendt in On Violence Harvest Book
  25. See Wilhelm Kamlah Meditatio Mortis in Okechukwu S.N. (1990)The right to life and the right to live: ethics of international solidarity, Peter Lang Frankfurt p.197
  26. See Wilhelm Kamlah Meditatio Mortis in Okechukwu S.N. (1990) op.cit.
  27. See quotation in Nwedo C.O. lecture material
  28. See Jean Amery in Okechukwu S.N. (1990) op.cit.p198
  29. Lenz Hamann cited in Okechukwu S.N. (1990) op.cit.p199
  30. Joachim Wagner in Okechukwu S.N. (1990) op.cit.p199
  31. See Walter Sax cited in Okechukwu S.N. (1990) op.cit.p199
  32. SeeAldeaandRosseauAFewConceptsAboutViolencein
  33. Ibid.

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