The legitimacy of violence as a political act?


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Noam Chomsky debates with Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, et al. (December 15, 1967)

ROBERT B. SILVERS: … Under what conditions, if any, can violent action be said to be “legitimate”? …

NOAM CHOMSKY: My general feeling is that this kind of question can’t be answered in a meaningful way when it’s abstracted from the context of particular historical concrete circumstances. Any rational person would agree that violence is not legitimate unless the consequences of such action are to eliminate a still greater evil. Now there are people of course who go much further and say that one must oppose violence in general, quite apart from any possible consequences. I think that such a person is asserting one of two things. Either he’s saying that the resort to violence is illegitimate even if the consequences are to eliminate a greater evil; or he’s saying that under no conceivable circumstances will the consequences ever be such as to eliminate a greater evil. The second of these is a factual assumption and it’s almost certainly false. One can easily imagine and find circumstances in which violence does eliminate a greater evil. As to the first, it’s a kind of irreducible moral judgment that one should not resort to violence even if it would eliminate a greater evil. And these judgments are very hard to argue. I can only say that to me it seems like an immoral judgment.

Now there is a tendency to assume that a stand based on an absolute moral judgment shows high principle in a way that’s not shown in a stand taken on what are disparagingly referred to as “tactical grounds.” I think this is a pretty dubious assumption. If tactics involves a calculation of the human cost of various actions, then tactical considerations are actually the only considerations that have a moral quality to them. So I can’t accept a general and absolute opposition to violence, only that resort to violence is illegitimate unless the consequences are to eliminate a greater evil.

With this formulation, however, one moves from the abstract discussion to the context of concrete historical circumstances where there are shades of gray and obscure complex relations between means and ends and uncalculable consequences of actions, and so on and so forth. Formulated in these terms, the advocates of a qualified commitment to nonviolence have a pretty strong case. I think they can claim with very much justice that in almost all real circumstances there is a better way than resort to violence. Let me mention a couple of concrete instances that may shed some light on this question. I read in the Times this morning an interview with Jeanette Rankin, who was the one member of Congress to vote against the declaration of war on December 8, 1941, to the accompaniment of a chorus of boos and hisses. Looking back, though, we can see that the Japanese had very real grievances, and that the United States had quite a significant share of responsibility in those grievances back in 1941. In fact, Japan had rather a more valid case than is customary to admit.

On November 6, 1941, just a month before Pearl Harbor, Japan had offered to eliminate the main major factor that really led to the Pacific war, namely the Closed Door Policy in China. But they did so with one reservation: that they would agree to eliminate the closed door in China, which is what we’d been demanding, only if the same principle were applied throughout the world — that is, if it were also applied in, say, Latin America, the British Dominions, and so forth. Of course, this was considered too absurd to even elicit a response.

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