Whether a given group in society is peaceable and humane or violent and brutal depends in the last analysis on the social conditions in which it lives. Purely agricultural peoples often recoil from inflicting death not only on humans but even on beasts. Most conspicuous in this respect are the Hindus. Hunters and herdsmen on the other hand live by slaughtering animals. The habit of spilling blood and their skill in the use of weapons ultimately lead them to the slaying of human enemies without compunction.
Where such warlike people live next to peaceable soil-tillers, unaccustomed to bear arms, they end up by subjugating the latter. They thus become the founders of the state. They dominate it as a military aristocracy, enslaving and exploiting the peasantry and extending the field of exploitation by their military prowess. Violence and brutality become the normal conditions of life for the dominant classes of the state. This applies to the military nobility as well as to the monarchy which rises above it, and holds true of its agents – the army, the police and the judiciary.
Among the subjugated and exploited classes, on the other hand, there is created a mentality of two sorts. The peasants and burghers of the rising state, in harmony with their manner of production, tend toward peace and abhorrence of bloodshed. But at the same time the mistreatment from above creates among them a desire to rebel and to inflict vengeance. Thus from the brutality of the rulers and exploiters arises the brutality of the ruled and exploited, especially when the latter have some weapons at their disposal.
Following the period of the great migration of peoples in Europe there had raged at first those interminable petty wars characteristic of feudal monarchy and then, from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, the frightful civil wars which we designate as the religious wars of the Reformation period, with every class fighting against the Catholic Church at one time or another and incidentally carrying out a campaign of massacre against its class enemies. The higher nobility, the lower nobility, the burghers, the peasants fought among themselves as well as with the representatives of state authority, kings and emperors. The result of this savage fury was the frightful brutalization of the masses of the people.
It all ended with the victory of the state power, mostly in the form of absolute despotism, which succeeded in rendering all classes of the population defenseless, limiting the opportunity of armed self-protection only to the organs of state power: the hired troops, the police and the judiciary. All these continued to deal with the masses of the people as brutally and mercilessly as before. In the rest of the population, now disarmed, there occurred a great mental change. It became unaccustomed to the use of weapons and violence. At the same time conditions were created – it would take us too far afield to describe them here – that made it possible for the subject classes to liberate themselves intellectually from the ruling classes, to even oppose them intellectually and to set up the ideal of popular freedom and the abolition of exploitation in opposition to the ideas of aristocracy and monarchy. This opposition created the tendency to associate the struggle against the ruling class with that directed purely against its brutality. – The new mode of thought developed in the eighteenth century saw in war not heroism to be admired but criminal madness. It opposed duelling, torture, capital punishment. This humane striving attained its first and foremost expression among the intellectuals of the cities. Wherever these intellectuals made up a professional group that had the power to develop economically, independent of the ruling classes and without attaining a position of dominance itself, they invariably tended to fight their opponents with intellectual weapons instead of physical force. – In some of the large cities of Europe the intellectuals of the eighteenth century found such conditions available, and so they became the champions of the humanitarian ideal. They gradually drew toward it other groups of the oppressed and exploited people striving for emancipation. The humanitarian movement had its greatest success in the cities, and mostly among the proletarian elite. Wage-earners make up the least favorably situated class of the population. They i suffer most from the brutality of the ruling class. As long as the workers remain hopeless, the weakest among them submit, while the more militant ones seek personal revenge: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Those capable of entertaining a higher hope, however, who look beyond the present and feel that they have in themselves the making of a better future put up a fight against not only every form of slavery and exploitation but also against every disregard of human life, including the life of the opponent.
The idea of humanity, of respect for human personality, which the enlighteners of the eighteenth century preached, found a quick response among all classes who opposed feudal absolutism, but mostly, again, among the proletarian elite. Of course, the proletariat of the eighteenth century had not yet appeared as a separate class disassociated from the petty bourgeoisie.
Influenced by this humanitarian thought, the makers of the American Revolution in 1776 and of the French Revolution in 1789 strove to steer clear of every form of brutality. They succeeded perfectly in North America, although the revolution there fully coincided with the character of war. But the American revolutionists were fighters who had lived a free life before the revolution and who felt themselves capable of throwing off the last vestige of dependence that oppressed them. In France, on the other hand, there were millions of extremely poor and brutalized creatures whom an inhuman government had robbed of every hope and sense of human dignity. How could they be expected to respect such dignity in their tormentors, when once they had changed roles with the latter? Yet so strong was the influence of the humanitarian ideas that even in the French Revolution comparatively few outrages were committed against counter-revolutionists during the first stages of the upheaval.
A change occurred only in 1772 when war broke out, and that only in the early phase of it, which did not go well for France, when the foreign foe was supported by the French counter-revolutionists. This has already been referred to above, as well as the reign of terror resulting from it.
The terror created the illusion among the champions of the lower classes that no revolution could prove victorious without bloodshed, that it could maintain its superiority over its enemies only by depriving them of life or an opportunity to sustain it.
Nevertheless, the idea of humanity continued to make Progress among the laboring classes, especially the proletariat. The form of society that came as a result of the Great French Revolution favored this idea, in spite of the State of war which burdened the nations of Europe from 1792 to 1815 and the bloody reaction which set in France in 1814 after the return of the Bourbons.
When revolution broke out again in that country in 1830, in which the proletariat played a most prominent role, it Proceeded not only along lines entirely different from those of the reign of terror of 1792-1794, namely, under conditions of peace instead of war, but was helped along by a proletariat more highly developed. No blood was shed this time, except in struggle with an armed enemy to protect the people against violence. As victor the revolution proved magnanimous and kind, cherishing no thought of attacking its enemies in person or depriving them of their property. It permitted the overthrown king to depart in peace.
The leaders of the reaction, while in power, had often used their instrument of authority in the most cruel manner. Nevertheless no act of political or personal revenge was perpetrated against them by the proletarian victors.
This charitableness was prompted not by fear or weakness, but by a feeling of superiority over the opponent. The victors did not wish to stoop to the level of their enemies’ brutality and personal greed.
The same was true of the victorious fighters on the barricades in January and February, 1848, in Paris; in March of the same year in Vienna, and Berlin, etc. Quite different was the attitude of the intellectually backward proletariat of the large Italian city, Naples. In 1830, incited by King Ferdinand, it carried out a surprise attack upon the liberals and democrats, belonging mostly to the bourgeoisie, killed many of them and plundered and destroyed their dwellings.
That such methods are abhorred by an intellectually developed proletariat, morally uplifted by its Socialist convictions, was shown anew by the workers of Paris when Thier’s attempt to disarm them led in March 1871 to their uprising and the overthrow of the reactionary government. The victors did not give vent to their fury through robbery and murder directed against the Bonapartist and liberal bourgeois who happened to remain in Paris. These latter were not molested. And that in spite of the fact that Paris was at that time surrounded by troops of the government. In the midst of this struggle the Paris workers burned the guillotine (April 6). The government forces engaged in daily executions of defenders of the Commune who happened to fall into their hands. The latter answered merely by ordering the arrest of a few hostages. But as long as the Commune lasted, no harm was done to these hostages. It was only when it was crushed and the government troops were given free reign in Paris that it occurred to some of the Socialists driven to despair to avenge themselves on the hostages. All of these Socialists were Blanquists. The Internationalists, learning of the fate threatening the hostages, tried to do everything to protect them.
It is a noteworthy fact that the willing perpetrators of these Blanquist cruelties were half-grown youths. Fiaux, the historian of the Paris Commune, says of the executioners of the hostages:
In most of these crimes the accomplices were young people not quite of marriageable age, spurred on by the vices and passions of city life which had grown in them before their beards had had a chance to sprout and which had left no room for a sense of responsibility. (Guerre Civile, p.528)
Who in reading this description can fail to be reminded of the black and brown shirts of today?
Just as in earlier revolutions the proletariat after its victory showed its magnanimity and humanity, so in more recent times, during the March revolution in Russia in 1917, in the revolutions in Germany, Austria, Czechslovakia in October and November 1918, in Spain after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1931, the working class displayed the same attitude.
It is simply untrue that the proletariat triumphant in a revolution must always assume a murderous pugnacity. The very opposite is true. Not the proletarian revolutionists but their opponents and their armed hordes of followers give vent to savage fury wherever they happen to defeat the proletariat, either through the direct use of arms or by resorting to the insidious methods of demagogy.
It was not the victors of February 24, 1848, in Paris, who soiled themselves with blood, it was those of June 23 of the same year. Not the victors of March 12, 1848, in Vienna, but those of October 31, of the same year. And in 1871 it was not the victors of March 18 but those of the bloody week in May (May 21-28) who abandoned themselves to a frenzy of murder. Terroristic principles in the Paris Commune and the relationship between terrorism and revolution are fully treated in the book Terrorism and Communism.
The magnanimity and humanity of the more highly developed proletariat did not originate in the special theory advanced by it or by order of its leaders, but in the conditions of life wherever these were effective enough to imbue the proletariat with a high idealism. This idealism inspires unselfishness and enthusiasm as well as humaneness and generosity in an oppressed class only when the class becomes conscious of its power and its duty to set up a higher order of society in place of the existing conditions of misery, so that it does not regard its victory as a means to personal aggrandizement and revenge. On the other hand, persons who in political struggles set themselves the last mentioned objectives are always mean and cruel to their defeated opponents.
The same is true of parties and classes who are able to rule over the masses of the people only as minorities and are in a position to maintain their rule not by the aid of enlightened measures but through fear and terrorism.
The danger of such minority terrorism does not exist in the case of Social Democracy, which aims to attain power only as the representative of the majority of the population and believes that its program assures the welfare and freedom of the entire collective body of toiling humanity, wherever conditions favor carrying this program into effect.
Last updated on 20.1.2004