Philosophy for Our Times, Episode 131, Institute of Arts and Ideas

Fires of Progress: Steven Pinker, Tariq Ali, Elif Sarican

This transcript is the supporting document for the discussion of this debate posted here.



I’m Anna from the Institute of Arts Ideas, and this week I bring you a podcast on the contentious subject of whether violence is a force for good or evil in the world. From Israel to Korea and to Russia, and the French Revolution to the suffragettes, this week’s podcast spans continents, centuries and leaders to debate the role violence should play in politics and society today. Is violence ever a justifiable political strategy, or has it hindered the creation of a better world?

Leading public intellectual and author of Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker, filmmaker and author of Clashing Fundamentalisms, Tariq Ali, and Kurdish women’s movement activist, Elif Sarican, grapple with the force of history to bring you the answers. As ever, we look forward to hearing what you thought of this episode. Please make sure you subscribe and rate the podcast on SoundCloud, Spotify, or iTunes to never miss an episode of Philosophy for Our Times. Over to … who hosts of this episode on the fires of progress.

Moderator: Is violence ever justified in the pursuit of political or social aims, and where it is justified, how can we actually argue for it? Tariq, could I start with you? Are there occasions when the use of violence can and should be justified in seeking political ends?

Tariq Ali: I think so, and I think history teaches us that. There are of course different forms of violence. I am not and never have been a supporter of terrorism, defined as it should be defined, either individual or that used by states, but I am a strong supporter of, historically speaking, of all the revolutions that have taken place, the slave rebellions that have taken place in history, starting, if you like, with the American Revolution against British colonialism, carrying on to the French Revolution, the revolution of the Enlightenment—the link between the intellectuals prior to the Revolution and the revolutionaries was very strong—the English revolution which made the foundations of democracy, and of course in the 20th century we’ve had a whole wave of revolutions and revolutionary struggles which have deployed violence: the Russian Revolution, the Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban, the huge anti-colonial struggles waged by the Vietnamese. So I’m afraid it’s very difficult, studying modern and all medieval history, or early modern history, to get away from this idea of violence, and I think we have to detach the violence used by masses in motion from acts of individual terror carried out, for whatever reason, or suicide terrorism, or whatever.

The struggle of people for their freedom has always involved violence because the people they’re trying to gain independence from deploy it as well, so the choice is either to sit down and do nothing or to hope that peaceful agitation wins the day—which it never has, with very few exceptions—and to throw the power over to those who occupy, oppress and kill people ad nauseam. This goes on today even as we’re sitting here. Six wars are being waged in the world by the United States, the most brutal of which, which is hardly mentioned, is the war in the Yemen being waged by Saudi Arabia and its allies, backed by the United States and Britain. So what are the poor Yemeni to do?

Moderator: Thanks very much, indeed, Tariq. Steven, we’ve heard that case that peaceful engagement on its own simply hasn’t been a useful way of changing society, with the exception of a very few cases. You have spoken out for better angels very, very publicly. Would you agree with the case that Tariq has made?

Steven Pinker: No, I wouldn’t agree. I guess I start from the premise that killing people is bad and killing more people is worse than killing fewer people, so even though I also don’t support terrorism, terrorists have killed a tiny number of people. The worst terror attack in history, 9-11, killed 3,000. A typical terrorist attack kills a handful whereas wars and revolutions kill people by the millions and tens of millions, and often it is true… Tariq listed a number of violent events in human history. We do not make the argument that these are good or justifiable. These are history’s disasters. Now I do believe that there are arguments, that there can be occasions in which violence is justified, if it is the only way to prevent greater violence. Again, I’m assuming that murdering people is bad. If you disagree with that, then you can disagree with the whole argument.

Now did the events that we just heard about result in the reduction of violence, prevention of killing of even greater numbers, which I suppose, could be used as a utilitarian argument justifying violence? The answer is, in virtually all the cases, no. The French Revolution was a disaster that killed two million people, led to the rise of Napoleon, perhaps the world’s first totalitarian fascist dictator who began wars of conquest that killed an additional four million people, led to the restoration of slavery, to the restoration of the monarchy, and a delay of democracy in France by perhaps a century. The Russian Revolution killed several million, led to the Russian civil war which killed another nine million, led to the rise of Stalin, who killed 20 million. There’s an old cliché: you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Well, it ignores the fact that people aren’t eggs and that generally violence does not result in an omelet.

Again, the Chinese Revolution, perhaps the most disastrous event in history, led to the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution, which killed perhaps 30 to 40 million people altogether. Time and again, violent revolution or violent war, in addition to the moral harm of mass murder, and again, I mean murder—we’re talking about millions or tens of millions of people—does not result in a stable peaceful state that saves the lives of even more—quite the contrary.

A recent study by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth actually looked over the last century at violent and non-violent resistance movements to put the Gandhian hypothesis to a test, that that there are ways of overcoming tyranny using all of the tactics that Gandhi worked out. They decided to count all of the resistance movements of the 20th century. They divided them into violent ones and non-violent ones, putting aside the question of which was more moral, that is, which murdered fewer people. They just asked the question of which is more effective. Now it’s not the case that violent resistance movements always succeed or the non-violent ones fail, or vice versa, but if you count them up, they found that non-violent resistance movements were three times as effective as violent ones. It doesn’t mean the violent ones are never effective, but even in terms of sheer efficacy, the non-violent ones tend to have a higher success rate.

Moderator: When they say three times as effective, Steven, do you mean they killed one-third as few people?

Steven Pinker: No. Three times more often they resulted in regime change.

Moderator: OK, that’s an interesting definition, and one that I think we will have to come back to in the discussion.

Steven Pinker: The final observation is that in a survey of what leads to stable democracies, inspired in part by the 2003 invasion of Iraq—which, I think, we all agree was not a successful measure to install a peaceful liberal democracy—that actually fits into a pattern that decapitations of an existing tyrannical regime generally don’t result in a sustainable democracy. I’ll add one final observation. I’m Canadian, so we actually did achieve independence from Britain nonviolently, and took a little bit longer than the United States, but the American Revolution was a pretty bloody and brutal mess as well, and Canada as a result is today one of the most stable, least violent and most democratic societies on earth.

Moderator: Elif Sarican, you know a great deal, both in theory and in practice, about the way in which coercion, violence and resistance have been used in certain very prominent recent conflicts. I wonder if you give us your thoughts in the next couple of minutes.

Elif Sarican: I think when we talk about whether violence or conflict is necessary for some sort of lasting change, I think it’s important to consider the framework in which we discuss them. We don’t have the time for that right now, but even to acknowledge the history and the roots of the ideas of war, people mass murdering each other for whatever purpose by whatever means there may be. I think from the historical references that we have access to we can quite comfortably say that the history and the roots of war are also the historical roots of patriarchy, and this is the way the Kurdish movement and therefore Rojava ever kind of intersects this this discussion.

Moderator: Just briefly explain what Rojava is.

Elif Sarican:  Rajova is a region in northern Syria that in 2012 declared autonomy, and declared what they call a social contract, and not a constitution, that they were going to rebuild and transform a society based on the principles of direct democracy, ecology and women’s liberation, so therefore there would be gender equality. Is violence necessary? In a perfect world, no, but the point is we have 5,000 years of civilization, 5,000 years of, especially, the oppression and suppression of women, 5,000 years of the past leading to capitalist modernity. We may visibly, we live now, see or feel less violence physically, but violence isn’t just a physical act. Violence also manifests itself in many forms, in every aspect of society.

Moderator: The term is structural violence.

Elif Sarican: Structural violence and, for example, states have monopoly over violence, so somehow their violence is more justified than the resistance of the people, so I understand, and in a perfect world, yes, there shouldn’t be violence, but I don’t agree that those these historical instances of revolutions have been disasters and catastrophes because yes, unfortunately, many people died in these, but they’ve also set very important precedents for humanity in terms of our understanding of how to live and how to organize.

Now I would argue that we still have a long way to go, but it’s these resistances that have in many ways had to be physical resistances and therefore violent to be able to somehow result in something. I know this from the Kurdish cases. When you have an oppressor that is determined to exterminate you and destroy your existence, then sometimes, and most of the time, the only option left is to physically resist, which means violent uprisings or attempts at revolution. I think just lastly about the discussion of violence to prevent further violence and therefore achieve certain ideas of achieving democracy: in an ideal world these would happen in peaceful ways where two parties can negotiate for some sort of settlement or a solution, but the truth is when we discuss it in this framework, it really disregards the unequal power relations that exist in the world, the unequal power relations between states and non-state actors, between the state and women, between the state and, in historical cases, its colonial subjects. I certainly agree that, in many cases, violence has been necessary.

Moderator: Elif, thank you very much for that thought. We’re now going to turn to a little bit of interaction between our panel on a variety of the really interesting subjects that they’ve brought up, and one of the things I want to throw out there is the idea that perhaps we put too much of an opposition between violence and non-violence. Many activists would argue that in fact they’re aspects of a similar process. You might like to get into this, Tariq. Let’s turn to you and ask about perhaps the single most famous figure associated with non-violence. That, of course, is Gandhi Mahatma Gandhi. How do you see Gandhi’s tactics? He is regarded essentially as the single most successful user of non-violent tactics. Doesn’t he, therefore, make the case for their applicability and their wider usefulness?

Tariq Ali: Gandhi was never a dogmatic believer in non-violence. When it served his needs, he came out and supported violence. He supported the British during the First World War. He was active as a recruiting sergeant for people to join the Indian Army to go and fight for the British. He supported the Indian military intervention in Kashmir immediately after partition, so there’s the early Gandhi and the late Gandhi. The only cases where he was a firm believer in non-violence was in the independence struggle against the British because both he and Nehru to a large extent (and other Indian freedom leaders) believed that the British could be negotiated out of India, and you didn’t need violence; whereas the third leader Subash Chandra Bose, who was also very popular, believed the opposite. So what I think about Gandhi’s non-violence is that too much has been made of it. It was largely tactical based on his assessment of the colonial power that he was fighting.

Moderator: Are you suggesting there wasn’t a distinct point of principle behind it in that case? “Tactical” is a rather sort of damning-with-faint-praise type of wording.

Tariq Ali: A lot of recent literature that has been coming out. xxxxx’s book on Gandhi, for instance, is a pretty savage and damning book, without any praise at all, so I think we have to relook at that. A more impressive figure, in my mind, than Gandhi (not that he wasn’t impressive, one can disagree with him and see how he was) was Martin Luther King who was a very firm believer in non-violence at a time when black America was seething, angry, raging. There was Malcolm X arguing the opposite case and many others. Martin Luther King, whether you agree or disagree with him, stood firm on that, and that is what won him a great deal of respect. Of course, that didn’t save his life, but that’s another story.

Moderator: So clearly there are exemplars and I think there’s not going to be, I hope, anyone in this room who’s going to disagree with the view of Martin Luther King as a great non-violent activist. And yet the wider cases being made here, Steven, that you’re going to have to have some serious engagement with violence, whether it’s state violence or resistance, to achieve certain socially desirable aims. Human beings simply can’t cut it out altogether.

Steven Pinker: Well, I think there is a justification for just war in particular cases where the measured use of violence results in greater saving of lives and greater human flourishing than abjuring violence and perhaps the battle against Isis is one, perhaps the Second World War. Opposition to Hitler is another, but those are fairly circumscribed cases and the vast majority of uses of violence, and most of the ones that we’ve heard today don’t fall into that category. Not only did they create harm in the infliction of violence themselves, but their aftermath was even greater brutality and violence.

I think using the Russian Revolution as an example of why violence is justified is patently absurd. It led to even greater violence and oppression and some of the worst atrocities in human history, likewise the Chinese Revolution, likewise the French Revolution. And we do know that there are many cases in which, in fact, violence is not needed to bring about massive changes. The empowerment of women is a great example. All the victories of feminism in the 20th century did not result because there was a violent women’s liberation front. That was not necessary.

Moderator: So you’re saying British suffragettes, who actually did carry out you know active resistance, in that sense, didn’t have a role?

Steven Pinker: How many people did they kill?

Moderator: Well, they certainly were willing to take an active physical… violence doesn’t have to involve killing, of course. There was physical confrontation. I mean that’s the point.

Steven Pinker: Well, it was not the Russian Revolution. How many people were killed by the British suffragettes? I’ll repeat. How many people were killed by the British suffragettes?

Moderator: Very few. Several of them were killed in the struggle.

Steven Pinker: Yes, but they did not achieve their goals by killing tens of millions of people. You would agree with that?

Moderator: But they didn’t renounce violence as a tactic as part of the principle as well.

Steven Pinker: Were they armed? Did they throw bombs? Did they have machine guns?

Moderator: They were British middle-class people…

Steven Pinker: Exactly, and they succeeded.

Moderator: In in the wider context, though, are you basically circumscribing, to use your words, via some particular principle… You mentioned the Second World War and other examples, too, but the thing is that you know hard cases make bad law. Are you making the case that essentially in almost all cases the use of coercion, the use of violence really is something that can’t be justified, can’t be given any kind of standing?

Steven Pinker: I think it can only be justified when it prevents greater violence and suffering, and I think there are not that many cases in which that holds, so I do believe in Just War Theory, but there aren’t a whole lot of them. And history shows that massive numbers of them fail, including virtually all of the examples. The battle against Isis would be a good example in which violence is justified.

However, even the Second World War… I’m going to say something that is mildly heretical here. It did not prevent the Holocaust. It’s unclear how many Jews, for example, were saved by the Allied campaign. In fact, many Jews were saved by non-violent action such as in Sweden and Denmark. A lot of the activities of the Allies during World War II cannot be justified, such as the bombing of civilians in Germany. It’s a little bit of a heretical question, but from today’s perspective, if we ask how many of the goals could have been achieved by resistance, by internal sabotage, by the techniques that brought down the Soviet Empire, it’s a question worth asking. I suspect that in the case of World War II there was no choice but to fight Hitler with violence, but still the question of how much violence, how much good did it did, what the alternatives were need to be raised.

Moderator: And Elif, if you would say in the context of the conflicts that you know most about, and very current ones as well, really that perhaps that justification of just war is the way to understand why violence is necessary in those cases.

Elif Sarican: Undoubtedly, the Kurdish resistance against Isis was obviously necessary, but I think when we talk about violence the framework in which we talk about violence needs to be broadened. I know we’re talking specifically about war, so maybe we shouldn’t call it broadly violence but call it war because arguably civilization was built on violence.

Moderator: It’s an interesting combination of the way in which action and language come together in that case. Tariq, I want to bring up someone who you’ve written a great deal about and thought a great deal about, and that’s Lenin. We heard from Steven about the Russian Revolution as an example, in Steven’s, view of how violence can go horribly wrong. One of the things that’s very evident in some parts of Lenin’s writings, particularly in the early 20th century, are not just the regrettable necessity of using violence to transform society, but actually violence really as a performance—terror, and violence as a way of showing there’s a new world, a new regime. In that kind of explanation, terror and violence become almost a desirable thing because they show a different way of operating society. Can that sort of use of terror and violence be justified in our own era?

Tariq Ali: Well, if you’d read what he said, actually, carefully, basically the position he was making is that no ruling class ever gives up power voluntarily, and in order to defeat the ruling classes… and let’s not pretend what these countries were. Russia was an absolutist monarchy. Czarist rule was not particularly pleasant for the people prior to the Russian Revolution. Large numbers of serfs were treated no better than slaves despite the emancipation declaration. So the logical conclusion of many of the arguments against the revolution implied that somehow what existed before was better. Putin says the same thing, by the way. That’s the official line now: worship of czars and czarism and the Orthodox Church, who carried out more pogroms in Europe prior to Hitler than any other regime. So let’s not forget that. Let’s not forget all the attempts that were made to reform these regimes by women. Prior to Lenin and the Bolsheviks you had a huge anarchist current led largely by women.

Moderator: The activists like Sophia Perovskaya and so forth, but that still takes us back to the question which is: in that case if you accept all of those preceding events, can Lenin’s statements—that in some cases, essentially, the performance of violence is not just a sad necessity but actually something that has its own virtue—be justified?

Tariq Ali: I have never read, and I have read quite a lot of Lenin, the phrase “the performance of violence.” This is your summary of it. I would challenge that. I don’t think he argued that, but the other point worth making is that violence, one sort of violence, is killing people. Another sort of violence is structural violence: the famines in India. Who took the decision? The British war cabinet under Churchill. Millions died. Latin America. Structural violence against people.

Moderator: Let’s take that precise point to Steven, if we may then, Tariq. Maybe part of the problem is the definition of violence you’ve given us, Steven. While it’s immensely wide-ranging—war, revolution and so forth—it doesn’t include that wider structural definition in which state action or inaction, famines and so forth, are also immensely violent acts against people.

Steven Pinker: Well, if there is a deliberate imposition of a famine such as the Holodomor by the Soviet Union against Ukraine, or Mao’s Great Leap Forward, which was some combination of malice and incompetence, if it was intended or not prevented when it could have been prevented, that would count as violence. I think a lot of what’s called structural violence could be defined as not violence. I believe Lenin was also mistaken. There are plenty of examples in which governments have relinquished power without violence. There has been a massive wave of democratization since the 1970s. The fascist governments in Spain and Portugal, many of the military and right-wing governments in East Asia in Latin America—many of them ceded power without violence. Now of course we also have a transition…

Tariq Ali: Huge acts of violence in Korea, huge acts of violence against the population by the military. A revolution in Portugal toppled that particular dictatorship, a revolution which started in 1974 and ended in 1975, and the only reason violence couldn’t be used against that was the military was split and a large section of the Portuguese army and soldiers fought with the people. So it’s quite useful to know one’s history before making broad statements.

Steven Pinker: You can’t use the fact that a regime itself committed violence as a justification of violence, particularly when they were overthrown with very little violence. So the fact that there’s violence against women does not mean that violence is justified. It’s a stronger argument that any tactic available should be used to prevent that violence, and very often the tactics that are effective are not violent. Again, this is not to say that violence is never justified. It’s just that it can be justified all too easily. It’s not so hard to get a lot of young men to commit mass murder, especially when you give them a rationale for it. The question is: do these circumstances where violence can be justified, actually exist? Is it the case that the only way to prevent greater violence is by the measured use of violence? In many instances the answer is no.

Elif Sarican: Can I ask you a question? What tactics do you think can be deployed to prevent violence against women?

Steven Pinker: Well, I’ll give you an example. In the United States the rate of rape, of domestic violence, and domestic murder have fallen by about 75% since records were first kept in the 1970s, and, as far as I know, there was no violence that was meted out in order to achieve those goals. There were arguments. There were protests. There was legislation. There was activism, but there was no anti-rape women’s liberation front involving guerrilla action, or terrorism, or armed resistance. There was fantastic success through the democratic process.

Elif Sarican: It’s fallen 75%, as official records show, but I’m sure many people are aware here that the majority of women who experienced domestic violence never ever end up reporting it.

Steven Pinker: No, these are based on victimization surveys, not on reports to the police because indeed reports to the police would be an inaccurate source of evidence. But in fact, if anything, this underestimates the decline because women are more likely to report violence now than they would have been when this was kept in the shadows

Elif Sarican: And that’s also a particular demographic. That’s what I’m trying to say. I know from many communities. I was born in London, so I know more about the UK, but I know of many communities of women who wouldn’t report it because even in their communities it’s seen as a taboo, and what I’m trying to say is I think in some cases when we talk about these—and this is what I’ve been trying to say since the beginning—the framework in which we talk about some things is very important because it’s really important to understand our position when we are analyzing something to be able to carry out a meaningful analysis.

Moderator: Could I pick up on exactly that point and ask you to turn back to your experiences overseas again? Something that I think I suspect unites us all on this panel and probably in this room is that we would agree that ideally we would create a society with as little violence in it as possible, and something that I think is very different from Canada or the United States, or even the United Kingdom, is that places that have very recently directly been through deeply traumatic, deeply violent experiences of war and revolution, often find it very difficult to move past that. It’s hard to create a peaceful society out of one that has experienced real violence in the very recent past. How do the places that you’ve been and visited engage with that issue?

Elif Sarican: I think the difference between what’s happening in northern Syria from the other examples, perhaps, is that they didn’t wait until the defeat of Isis, or the end of the resistance against Isis, to build or transform their society. It was happening exactly at the same time. In many revolutions, unfortunately, especially the position of women has been the same or if not worse than before the revolution, but in this case they decided that even the form, the structure of the fight against Isis would embody what they’re trying to build. And that was that it was an act of resistance. Everyone that is given a gun has to receive women’s liberation education first.

Moderator: Does that include the women who get the guns?

Elif Sarican: Of course.

Moderator: Could I take that optimistic story and put something to Steven. You mentioned democratization as one of the benefits of how we are getting more peaceful, but Burma, Myanmar, is a country which has not fully, but significantly, democratized in the last 10 years and has simultaneously been subjected to one of the most horrific bouts of inter-ethnic violence that we’ve seen in the world. How do those two things gel with each other? Is democratization part of the problem sometimes rather than the solution?

Steven Pinker: I don’t know if it’s part of the problem, but it doesn’t guarantee a solution if it is not accompanied by robust declarations of rights, red lines that democratic governments may not cross such as imprisoning or forcibly moving or killing citizens. So that’s why democracy can’t just be popular democracy in the sense of whatever the majority want they can have. It’s that the majority are circumscribed by declarations of rights that limit what governments can do. That’s clearly been breached in Myanmar.

Moderator: Tariq?

Tariq Ali: Well, we’ve been discussing violence and non-violence, but no one so far has mentioned Israel-Palestine, and what is going on day in and day out in the occupied territories, and in Gaza, is pretty horrific. Now the Israeli argument used to be that as long as the Palestinians carry on using violence against us we will reply in kind. Whatever you think of that argument, it was an argument. OK. But since that period a large bulk of the Palestinians, both in Palestine and outside, have been supporting a totally non-violent movement called BDS: boycott, divestment and sanctions. This is completely nonviolent, based on their arguing of the case. They are now told you can’t eve argue that case in some parts of the world, that to argue for boycott, divestment and sanctions against an Israeli government, which is an oppressive, brutal regime, as far as Palestinians are concerned, and which has just passed through laws which its own top intellectuals have described as racist. So here’s a choice: constant terror attacks by tiny Palestinian groups, nothing on the scale of the Israeli attacks, or a peaceful BDS movement. What happens to a people when they are told they can do neither and the entire corpus of Western governments and their human rights do absolutely nothing except pander to this? This is a very real problem. Here you have a non-violent resistance taking place, so what should we do? That’s not allowed, either.

Moderator: Steven?

Steven Pinker: Well, you asked the question, “What should we do?” Is the answer to have more Intifadas or to have more terrorism? Has that been effective?

Tariq Ali: Well, I’m asking you about BDS. Do you think that’s justified?

Steven Pinker: I think it is certainly much more justified then an Intifada, yeah.

Elif Sarican: What about the violence of the Israeli state? Is that not terrorism?

Steven Pinker: It’s not terrorism. I think it’s state violence and states do commit violence, but if you want to argue that violence is bad, that states should not commit it, that is my point. You can’t say violence is justified but not when Israelis do it. If violence is not justified, it’s not justified.

Moderator: That strikes me as if, if we had another two hours, we would have a whole extensive debate, and I’m sure that we would have even more to discuss at that point. There have been plenty of thought-provoking ideas on all sides from our panel. Many thanks to Tariq Ali, Elif Sarican and Steven Pinker.