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Varieties of Historical Leftist Violence


I suppose it’s fairly well-known that I do not have the reflexive obsession with nonviolence in politics that dominates the minds of American liberals. Violence is usually a bad idea for a movement–that’s the fundamental problem. It almost always backfires. But it’s not a moral question. When people are committing violence against you, you absolutely have the right to defend yourself. To the extent that nonviolence worked in the civil rights movement–in fact quite debatable–it was because it also happened at the peak of white liberal power, to whom a moral case could be made so long as those white liberals weren’t actually threatened (wouldn’t want little Jennifer and Josh to go to schools with them in Massachusetts, but if it’s Alabama, well sure!). If the general public and state just doesn’t care, and they usually don’t, then nonviolence isn’t going to work. But this is far from a blanket approval of violent resistance either. Again, the point is tactics, not morality.

Recent profiles of two leftist figures from the past are worth discussing here. The first, which you may have seen, is the death of Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán. Of Guzmán, there is nothing good to say. For him and his movement, violence was the point. The idea that Marxists could remake society through mass slaughter on ideological convictions is the biggest perversion of Marxism in the late 20th century (at a time when there were a lot of perversion of Marxism!). The government of Peru was awful during these years and often is awful today. But the level of brutality shown by the Shining Path is just reprehensible to all except those fully committed to an ideology that believed the Khmer Rouge was perhaps just a bit too moderate. Good riddance. I find it highly unlikely that anyone would really defend Guzmán today, outside of a few tankies.

But doesn’t the issue get more complicated with isolated acts of political violence? Many of you have seen The Battle of Algiers, which I would argue is not only the greatest political movie of all time but the greatest movie of all time. Perhaps the biggest reason for its greatness is that it is not agitprop. It is a hard-looking film about violence and the cost of that on all sides, within a framework of Third World Marxism. The great scene, of course, is the three terrorist bombings. That was the real deal. In fact, the young woman who bombed the Milk Bar is still alive! There was a Washington Post profile on her back in July. She simply has no regrets. It was an act of political terrorism. It also was one of the key moments that forced the French out of Algeria.

At 86, she moves softly and wears wire-rimmed glasses, her light hair cut close to her ears. Decades have passed since she and her friends moved between hideouts in the winding streets of the casbah of Algiers, where freedom fighters once organized in secret. But Drif can still recall in remarkable detail the events that would forever shape not only her future but that of her country.

The bombing of the Milk Bar, frequented by French settlers, aimed “to create in the civilian French population the same panic” that Algerians were experiencing, she said in an interview at her son’s home in the Algerian capital last month. The Europeans “were so overprotected, it was as if there wasn’t a war. . . . And we had to tell them: The war is everywhere. It’s not only for us, it’s also for the French,” she said, expressing no regrets.

Born in 1934 in western Algeria, she grew up in the French educational system but understood from a young age that in the eyes of the French, she would always be regarded as an other in her own land, she recounts in her memoir, “Inside the Battle of Algiers: Memoir of a Woman Freedom Fighter.”

An exceptional student, she eventually moved for her studies to Algiers, where she was one of only a handful of Algerians at her boarding school. There, she met Samia Lakhdari, who would become her closest friend and later her co-conspirator in the resistance. Lakhdari died in 2012.

“Knowing everything that had happened in our country, it was clear for us there was no option but an armed struggle, and that we had to confront the French, and with violence,” Drif recalled.

I am glad she feels no regrets. It was a solid political action, including from a moral perspective. So were the other bombings that day of the cafe and the Air France office. Yes, this cost lives. So did French repression.

There’s no grand point I’m trying to make here except to push people a little bit on their reflexive embrace of noviolence, which is not only historically tenuous and based on selective memories of the civil rights movement, but also has grown into a fetish in its own right, as if no political action can possibly be legitimate if it doesn’t immediately embrace the “nonviolence” cause, even though the vast majority of political causes that don’t embrace this never in fact have any practical use for violence.

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