The Force of Nonviolence: a Marxist Take on Judith Butler’s Ethico-Political Bind

The world was already a complicated enough place before I read The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind (Verso, 2020). And while Judith Butler’s book aims to bring clarity to one of the most troubling issues facing humanity, it does the opposite. In summary Butler’s philosophical intervention only serves to occlude reality, confounding clear-thinking on matters of life and death.

Yet Butler’s book is not all bad, and it would be fair to start this review by focusing on some of these limited points of agreement before progressing to my significant points of divergence. First, there can be no denying it, we do inhabit an intensely violent world. Second, Butler is right that it is wrong to characterize “nonviolence as a weak and useless passivity” – as, when practiced with aggressive determination, nonviolent actions wield immense power.

A General Strike when undertaken by workers is the perfect illustration of a nonviolent action that gets results. Butler however fails to mention this obvious act of working class solidarity, preferring instead to focus on the merits of a prison hunger strike, noting how this latter type of action “asserts its power by withdrawing labor that is essential to the continuation of a capitalist form of exploitation.” A conclusion that holds true for General Strikes too.

Butler correctly points out how “in a world in which violence is increasingly justified in the name of security, nationalism, and neofascism” the “state monopolizes violence by calling its critics ‘violent’”. Such self-serving definitional distortions are of course to be expected. But for Butler the issue of definitions is critical to making a strong case for nonviolence. They argue that the application of nonviolent strategies that are not extended to ensuring the defence of all humans end up being self-defeating. “For nonviolence to escape the war logics that distinguish between lives worth preserving and lives considered dispensable, it must become part of a politics of equality.” Butler therefore calls for “an egalitarian imaginary that apprehends the interdependency of lives”; something that sounds a lot like the type of international solidarity that is central to the political perspectives promoted by Marxists. 

Violence on the Left

After acknowledging these limited points of agreement, it is necessary to examine Butler’s departure from her allies on the Left. Firstly, Butler introduces the capitalist state’s favoured caricature of socialists as being obsessed with violence — a cartoonish imaginary that is best personified by the televisual pseudo-Marxist Slavoj Zizek. “There are those on the left who claim that violence alone has the power to effect radical social and economic transformation,” Butler intones. But we should be clear there are very few socialists who are obsessed with violence, and Zizek’s theatrics are not emblematic of any major trends promoted by genuine Marxists. For instance, Zizek openly disavows the working-class as the motor force of revolution and gleefully removes the democratic cornel from the writings of Lenin and Trotsky so he can (mis)portray the revolutionary duo as unrepentant purveyors of violence.[1] Although it is true that Butler does not mention Zizek by name in The Force of Nonviolence, Zizek famously closed a written dialogue with Butler by stating:

“The only ‘realistic’ prospect is to ground a new political universality by opting for the impossible, fully assuming the place of the exception, with no taboos, no a priori norms (‘human rights,’ ‘democracy’), respect for which would prevent us from ‘resignifying’ terror, the ruthless exercise of power, the spirit of sacrifice . . . if this radical choice is decried by some bleeding-heart liberals as Linksfaschismus, so be it!”[2]

After raising the violent socialist spectre persistently conjured up by the likes of Zizek, Butler introduces “others [on the left] who claim, more modestly, that violence should remain one of the tactics at our disposal to bring about such [radical] change.” Butler writes:

“One of the most popular arguments on the left to defend the tactical use of violence begins with the claim that many people already live in the force field of violence. Because violence is already happening, the argument continues, there is no real choice about whether or not to enter into violence through one’s action: we are already inside the field of violence. According to that view, the distance that moral deliberation takes on the question of whether or not to act in a violent way is a privilege and luxury, betraying something about the power of its own location. In that view, the consideration of violent action is not a choice, since one is already—and unwillingly—within the force field of violence. Because violence is happening all the time (and it is happening regularly to minorities), such resistance is but a form of counter-violence. Apart from a general and traditional left claim about the necessity of a ‘violent struggle’ for revolutionary purposes, there are more specific justificatory strategies at work: violence is happening against us, so we are justified intaking violent action against those who (a) started the violence and (b) directed it against us. We do this in the name of our own lives and our right to persist in the world.”

On a philosophical level Butler disagrees with such an approach, but concretely, when faced with reality, Butler’s theory of nonviolence turns out to be far more accommodating of force. “One of the strongest arguments for the
use of violence on the left,” Butler explains, “is that it is tactically necessary in order to defeat structural or systemic violence, or to dismantle a violent regime, such as apartheid, dictatorship, or totalitarianism. That may well be right, and I don’t dispute it.” In making this point Butler refers (in a footnote) to Friedrich Engels popular text, Anti-Dühring — a historically important book which eviscerated the anti-Marxist ideas of professor Eugen Dühring (1833-1921). Memorably Engels countered Dühring’s assertion that capitalist domination (violence) arose primarily because individuals choose to deploy force against others by enslaving them, writing:

“Every socialist worker, no matter of what nationality, knows quite well that force protects exploitation, but does not cause it; that the relation between capital and wage-labour is the basis of his exploitation, and that this was brought about by purely economic causes and not at all by means of force.” (pp.211-2)

Furthermore, Engels stated that the use of violent force would be necessary to enable the masses to break out of the violence of capitalist relations. He explained…

“To Herr Dühring force is the absolute evil; the first act of force is to him the original sin; his whole exposition is a jeremiad on the contamination of all subsequent history consummated by this original sin; a jeremiad on the shameful perversion of all natural and social laws by this diabolical power, force. That force, however, plays yet another role in history, a revolutionary role; that, in the words of Marx, it is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one, that it is the instrument with the aid of which social movement forces its way through and shatters the dead, fossilised political forms—of this there is not a word in Herr Dühring. It is only with sighs and groans that he admits the possibility that force will perhaps be necessary for the overthrow of an economic system of exploitation—unfortunately, because all use of force demoralises the person who uses it. And this in spite of the immense moral and spiritual impetus which has been given by every victorious revolution!”

Butler however, despite their familiarity with Engels’ arguments, remains committed to the power of nonviolence. It is also with some irony that on the opening page of The Force of Nonviolence Butler quotes a determined defender of violence (Angela Davis) to illustrate the relevance of a purely nonviolent form of resistance.[3]

When nonviolence needs violence

Leaving aside Butler’s thoughts on the role of violence in a revolutionary struggle for power, Butler’s views on the use of violence as a form of self-defence are similarly ambiguous. On the one hand Butler affirms that “nonviolence emerges as a meaningful concept precisely when destruction is most likely or seems most certain.” But for Butler there are exceptions: “I am not saying that no one should defend oneself, or that there are no cases where intervention is necessary. For nonviolence is not an absolute principle, but an open-ended struggle with violence and its countervailing forces.”

To further explicate such controversies Butler refers to an earlier essay of theirs titled “Protest, violent, nonviolent.” In that article Butler discusses “the question that was posed in my Saturday morning synagogue classes: if the Nazis were on the rise or in power, would you, or would you not, become part of a resistance movement that included tactics of violence against their institutions, infrastructures, and representatives?” Butler here apparently agreed with everyone else in the synagogue, “to let our otherwise principled views against nonviolence cede to the exception: we would fight.”

A related argument in favour of selective violence was more recently raised in an interview conducted with Butler in 2020. When asked if “the violence of the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto attempting to assault and attack and kill German force” would be included “as a category of a violence that reproduces violence” Butler answered no. However, Butler added “that a violent uprising against a fascist regime also needs to have a plan for reparation and for the restoration of nonviolence as a mode of life.”[4] For socialists such plans would revolve around the socialist innovation of having workers run society for the benefit of all workers of the world, not to satiate the greed of a few.

This is a crucial point, as creating a world where the use of violence is no longer needed to defend humanity from the depredations of capitalisms’ ideological weaponry, of which fascism is one variant, is after all the goal of all revolutionary socialists. One wonders whether Butler would have advocated the use of force in resisting the capitalist-assisted slaughter of one million Indonesians (many of whom were socialists) following General Suharto’s seizure of power in 1965? What about the support of violence in the Spanish Civil War, or during socialist fight against the forces of fascism in Greece in the wake of World War II (which we should remember were backed by Western capitalists including the British government)? Revolutionaries would say that in these instances violent self-defence is very necessary. As Leon Trotsky argued in the 1920s:

“That the aim of socialism is the elimination of force, first in its crudest and bloodiest forms, and then in other more covert ones, is indisputable. But here we are dealing not with the manners and morals of a future communist society but with the concrete paths and methods of struggle against capitalist force. When fascists disrupt a strike, seize a newspaper’s editorial offices and its safe, and beat up and kill workers’ deputies while the police encircle the thugs with a protective ring, then only the most corrupt hypocrite would advise workers not to reply blow for blow, on the pretext that force would have no place in a communist system. Obviously in each particular case it is necessary to decide, with respect to the whole situation how to answer the enemy’s force and just how far to go in one’s retaliation. But that is a matter of tactical expediency which has nothing to do with the acknowledgement or denial of force in principle.” (Trotsky’s Writings on Britain)

Defeating systemic violence

Flowing from such reasonable justifications for working-class violence, Marxists believe that nonviolent means alone are not enough to oust capitalist warlords from the state apparatus that oppresses ordinary people. This however does not mean that socialists support violent coups that led by a small and unrepresentative vanguard of revolutionaries. In fact, the opposite it true: socialists aim to build mass democratic movements for revolutionary change.

Violent force, however, must at least be available at the final insurrectionary moment to enable the democratic will of the working-class to be asserted over the crumbling regime of their rulers. But of course, the actual action of the armed overthrow of a tottering elite facing off against a mass revolutionary uprising does not need to include the millions of people who support the struggle. Elaborating on this dynamic in the context of the successful Russian Revolution of October 1917 Trotsky explains how: “A minority of the revolutionary class actually participates in the insurrection, but the strength of that minority lies in the support, or at least sympathy, of the majority.” And in contrasting the peoples’ revolution to the bloodbaths of the oppressors that must be vanquished to the dustbin of history, Trotsky writes:

“People do not make revolution eagerly any more than they do war. There is this difference, however, that in war compulsion plays the decisive role, in revolution there is no compulsion except that of circumstances. A revolution takes place only when there is no other way out. And the insurrection, which rises above a revolution like a peak in the mountain chain of its events, can no more be evoked at will than the revolution as a whole.” (The History of the Russian Revolution)

It is also important to note that when the democratic leadership of the Russian Revolution did finally seize power in October 1917, the violence enacted was minimal precisely because military support for the old regime collapsed under the weight of mass opposition. But socialists were then actively prevented from ensuring the restoration of nonviolence as a mode of life by the twenty foreign capitalist states who unleashed a bloody civil war upon the defiant people who had overthrown the Tzar’s despotic regime. The ensuing death toll enacted upon the Bolshevik leaders of the revolution, combined with the failure of the revolutionary movement to spread globally, enable us reach a critical understanding of why the historic and much celebrated revolution eventually degenerated under the anti-democratic leadership of Stalin.[5]

Genuine socialists first and foremost assert that a new more peaceful world – a world that places more value on life than profit – will only be created through mass struggle. Democracy is therefore the lifeblood of any revolutionary movement. It is this faith in the power of ordinary people to overthrow violent tyrants that is a central dogma of Marxists, but it is a democratic faith that is alien to the many enemies of socialism. This shortcoming is particularly prevalent in the liberal thought of the main theorist that Butler marshals to their defence of nonviolence, the famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

The ’pacifist’ letters

Drawing upon a public exchange of letters between Freud and Albert Einstein that took place in late 1932 — subsequently published in 1933 by the League of Nations – Butler’s theoretical framework for nonviolence attempts to give a Freudian twist to Einstein’s idea of “militant pacificism.” Hence Freud’s biological determinist obsession with the innate violence of all living things (our so-called death drive) is harnessed to the pursuit of global peace through the innovative promotion of something that Butler calls “aggressive nonviolence.” Yet the very correspondence that Butler was inspired by in order to make the case for an egalitarian future is problematic to say the least, as a closer examination of its contents demonstrates that it is a dialogue between two elitist ‘pacificists’, both of whom have no faith in the ability of mass movements of ordinary people to transcend capitalism.

Einstein, who at the time of writing his first open letter to Freud, in July 1932, was living in Germany so had good reason to be terrified by the growing Nazi movement. And in his attempt to promote peace within a capitalist framework he asks Freud: “Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?”[6]Freud then replied with a lengthy psychological exposition that Butler embraces in their effort to erect an emancipatory alternative to the democratic activities of Marxists. Consequently, given Butler’s choice of Freud’s theories to inform their bid to envisage a democratic future, it worth exploring some of the anti-democratic themes that inform Freud’s own letter. Important contextual themes that remain completely unaddressed by Butler who, seemingly, is only interested in exploring how aggressive urges can be channelled to support a more powerful form of nonviolence… aggressive nonviolence.

To start with Freud, having already rejected the ideas of revolutionary socialism, argues that state violence is so institutionalised that there is little hope of enacting serious structural change without facing extreme violence. He explains that when “oppressed members [of nation’s]… make constant efforts to obtain more power” demanding that society evolves from a situation of “unequal justice to equal justice for all,” most frequently “the ruling class is unwilling to recognize the change, and rebellion and civil war follow”.[7] Such is the violence of the ruling class. Later he reiterates this pessimistic outlook:

“Some people are inclined to prophesy that it will not be possible to make an end of war until Communist ways of thinking have found universal acceptance. But that aim is in any case a very remote one today, and perhaps it could only be reached after the most fearful civil wars. Thus the attempt to replace actual force by the force of ideas seems at present to be doomed to failure.”

Ignoring the plentiful, then existing evidence, that cooperation might be the primary driving force of human society, Freud asserts that “there is no use in trying to get rid of men’s aggressive inclinations.” He observes:

“The Russian Communists… hope to be able to cause human aggressiveness to disappear by guaranteeing the satisfaction of all material needs and by establishing equality in other respects among all the members of the community. That, in my opinion, is an illusion. They themselves are armed today with the most scrupulous care and not the least important of the methods by which they keep their supporters together is hatred of everyone beyond their frontiers.”

To restate his pessimistic arguments: Freud believes that the ruling-class will defend itself from democracy with civil war if need be; and that humans will always be defined by their aggression, even if societal elites no longer exist to positively encourage such divisive behaviour. Freud is right on one point, because it was certainly true that Stalin was mobilizing a terrifying politics of hate – a reactionary politics that inverted the democratic thrust of the 1917 Revolution which saw most of Stalin’s hate directed at his revolutionary critics, i.e., against Trotsky and the Left Opposition.

But the external hatred that Freud talks of existing “beyond their frontiers” relates to Stalin’s toxic foreign policy, a muddleheaded policy that actively prevented communists from working in alliances with Social Democrats who were branded by Stalin and his sycophants as social fascists. This policy thereby solidified an artificial division amongst ordinary German workers which did much to help Hitler seize power in 1933. So, while Marxist revolutionaries were, at the time, doing their best to overcome the sectarianism of the Communist International and the pacifying actions of the leaders of all Social Democratic Party’s (not just Germany’s). Yet Freud and Einstein remained unconcerned with the central democratic task at hand, that is, the building of a united working-class opposition to the Nazi regime.[8] Freud’s letter makes his own priorities clear when he says:

“One instance of the innate and ineradicable inequality of men is their tendency to fall into the two classes of leaders and followers. The latter constitute the vast majority; they stand in need of an authority which will make decisions for them and to which they for the most part offer an unqualified submission. This suggests that more care should be taken than hitherto to educate an upper stratum of men with independent minds, not open to intimidation and eager in the pursuit of truth, whose business it would be to give direction to the dependent masses… The ideal condition of things would of course be a community of men who had subordinated their instinctual life to the dictatorship of reason.”[9]

This is the opposite of the democratic politics derived from Marx’s egalitarian theories, the very ideas that enabled the triumph of 1917. As Marxists understand, a new peaceful society cannot be created by enlightened leaders making decisions for everyone else. Such a new society can only be established with the democratic participation of the majority of people, who are able to act collectively to elect accountable leaders to enact their collective will.

Finally, it is ironic that the exchange of letters that Butler chooses to use to make the case for the promotion of aggressive nonviolence should include an admission from Freud (the alleged pacifist) that “so long as there exist countries and nations that are prepared for the ruthless destruction of others, those others must be armed for war.” This is a limitation shared by Einstein too, and the following year Einstein renounced his commitment to pacifism in a desperate bid to defeat the Nazis… thereby lending his support to violence in the same way that Butler does when it comes to challenging regimes that place power before humanity.

The case for violence

This brings us back to the basic justification for why violence will be necessary to end the structural violence of capitalism. Socialists by no means disavow strict nonviolence because they like killing people: on the contrary, they do so because of the ferocious nature of their class enemies. Freud of course would have been very familiar with such socialist arguments as he lived in “Red Vienna” and was close to the political leadership of the Austrian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP). This was a political organization that, in 1923, had formed an armed militia (the Schutzbund) to protect workers against the forces of fascism.

However, Freud’s own left-leaning elitism was in many ways a reflection of the top-down and anti-democratic orientation of the Social Democrats themselves — a grouping whose leadership had always been fearful of the revolutionary impulses of the working-class. Instead, of waging a revolutionary struggle for power, out-of-touch SDAP leaders theorized that a socialist transformation of society could be brought about by constitutional means and set about the task of preparing the working-class for this new future. This was to be achieved by inverting the popular ideas of Marxist class struggle and thereby working within the confines of capitalism to promote the type of social, cultural, and psychological reforms that would help create the “new people” (neue Menschen) that would apparently prove fit for a socialist future.[10]

Thus, SDAP leaders like Otto Bauer spent the nineteen-twenties and thirties hampering every effort of the masses to confront the rising threat of fascism. In practice this meant refusing to allow the peoples’ armed militias to defend the working-class from the far-right because Social Democratic leaders were fearful that the use of such defensive measures might instigate a civil war.[11] Trotsky, better than any other socialist activist at the time, warned that the refusal to allow workers to defend themselves would only demoralize the working-class and embolden the rising forces of fascism. Writing in the wake of significant murderous attacks upon workers, in late 1929 Trotsky explained:

“It is hard to imagine more concentrated nonsense than Otto Bauer’s arguments on the impermissibility of violence except for the defence of the existing democracy. Translated into the language of classes, this argument means: violence is permissible to guarantee the interests of the bourgeoisie, organized as the state, but it is impermissible for the establishment of a proletarian state.

“…As Bauer would have it, the use of violence is permissible only in response to an already accomplished coup d’état, when “law” no longer has any foundation, but it is impermissible twenty-four hours before the coup, in order to prevent it.” (“The Austrian crisis and communism”)

In his short essay, Trotsky points the way forward, showing that the only way that the Stalinist slogans of social fascism could be overcome would be through the collective struggle of workers against the real fascist threat.

“But it would be disastrous not to foresee that in the course of the struggle against fascism a rapprochement is inevitable between the Communist Party and the masses of Social-Democratic workers at large, who still feel themselves to be and regard themselves as Social Democrats. It is the direct duty of the Communist Party to criticize the bourgeois character of the Social Democracy before this audience, to show these workers that Social-Democratic politics is the politics of capitulation to fascism. The more severe the crisis becomes, the more thoroughly this Communist criticism will be confirmed by the experience of the masses. But to equate the Social Democracy with fascism when the Social-Democratic workers have a mortal hatred of fascism and the leaders fear it just as mortally means to act in contradiction to the real political relations, to impart distrust of Communism to these masses, and to strengthen the bond between these masses and their leaders.”

The Communist Party of course did not heed Trotsky’s life-affirming advice. And in March 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power, Austrian fascists dispensed with parliament and immediately dissolved the workers Schutzbund, while facing no effective resistance from the misleaders of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party. Commenting on this developing situation in another essay, Trotsky again warned that:

“By their seemingly dreadful but in reality pathetic chorus of ‘If we are attacked’, the Austro-Marxists reveal their genuine suffering, they still hope that things will be left in peace, that things, God help us, will not go beyond mutual threats and waving of fists. What this means is that they are chloroforming the proletariat to facilitate Fascist surgery. A genuine proletarian politician, on the contrary, would be duty bound to explain to the Austrian workers that their class enemy, himself, has been caught between the paws of history; that no other way out remains for him except to destroy proletarian organizations; that in this instance there is no escaping the mortal struggle; and that this struggle must be prepared for in accordance with all the rules of revolutionary strategy and tactics.” (“Austria next in order”)

The SDAP leaders however preferred to counsel patience to an increasingly desperate working-class, who were simply told that they had to hold out for their leader’s nonviolent gradualist approach to work. This failure to challenge the violence of the far-right government resulted in the betrayal of a major workers’ uprising that began on February 12, 1934, which resulted in a civil war that was drowned in blood after four days of street fighting. Yet unlike Einstein who fled Germany so he could help ready the world to fight back against the Nazis, Freud remained silent in authoritarian Vienna, only eventually fleeing in 1938 when German troops had taken over the country with the consent of the Austrofascists.

Although not organized on the same scale as other resistance movements, Austrian and German workers (many of whom were Communists) fought valiantly to oppose the Nazis. In the following years the same happened across the rest of occupied Eastern Europe with Jewish populations playing a leading role in organizing such defensive measures. And while the Warsaw Ghetto uprising is well-known, “Jewish civilians offered armed resistance in over 100 ghettos in occupied Poland and the Soviet Union,” with other notable uprisings, like that that took place in the Minsk Ghetto, witnessing a united Jewish and non-Jewish resistance that fought back under communist leadership.[12]

The fight for a nonviolent future

Again, to repeat what has been said in this essay already, socialists are happy to use nonviolence in the aggressive way that Butler describes — which would include the use of General Strikes — to challenge the violent power of capitalist bosses and their state. But socialists do not believe it is productive to prevent workers from defending themselves when they are challenging an extremely violent capitalist adversary.

The struggle for socialism is internationalist at its core. This means any use of violence must necessarily extended across national boundaries – whether it be in the service of self-defense or to take power for the ordinary people. Furthermore, we don’t just fight for the democratic rights of workers because all lives (bar those of the ruling class) are equally “grievable” as Butler would put it. We aim to link up our collective struggles across all workplaces and all nations in a global socialist fight to fulfil “an egalitarian imaginary that apprehends the interdependency of lives.”

It would be comforting to know that we could rid our world of capitalist-driven inequality by nonviolence alone, but this is not possible. So, arguments that are made to limit the democratic application of violence only serve to perpetuate the deep violence that is already ingrained in the current system. This is because we are indeed, as Butler puts it “living in a time of numerous atrocities and senseless death”.

Butler is right that we should be aiming to create an alternative future which disputes the primacy and necessity of violence. But those powerful elites who have the most to lose from such a future have proven time and time again that they will utilize fascist violence to prevent such changes from ever occurring. If violence, as Butler believes, is justified in the case of Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and if we adopt a radical imagination of a world that no longer needs to be saturated by atrocities and senseless death, then violence must be embraced as a force for change to allow us to collectively give birth to a new nonviolent world.


[1] The following essay by Andrew Robinson and Simon Tormey presents a useful discussion of Zizek’s “appropriation of Marx” — a problematic positioning that has been supported by the Socialist Workers Party’s primary theorist Alex Callinicos, see “Zizek’s Marx: ‘sublime object’ or a ‘plague of fantasies’?,” Historical Materialism, 14(3), 2007. For other useful criticisms, see Jacob ChamberlainŽižek, antagonism and the Syrian crisis,” International Journal of Žižek Studies, 10(3), 2016; and for an earlier discussion of his transition from Stalinism to becoming the presidential candidate for the Liberal Party in Slovakia, see Dušan Bjelić, Normalizing the Balkans. Geopolitics of Psychoanalysis and Psychiatry (Ashgate, 2011). Robinson and Tormey, “Did someone say “Leninism?”: Zizek and social transformation,” Rethinking Marxism, March 20, 2007; Robinson and Tormey, “A ticklish subject? Zizek and the future of Left radicalism,” Thesis Eleven, 80(1), 2005. “Žižek’s politics are not merely impossible but, as we have shown, potentially despotic, and also – between support for a Master, acceptance of pain and alienation, militarism and the restoration of order – tendentially conservative. Such a politics, if adopted in practice, could only discredit progressive movements and further alienate those they seek to mobilize.” (p.104)

[2] Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, Slavoj Zizek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (Verso, 2000), p.326.

[3] Butler quotes Angela Davis as saying: “The legacy (of nonviolence) is not that of an individual legacy but a collective legacy of vast people who stood together in unity to proclaim that they would never surrender to forces of racism and inequality.” Davis, who is famous for defending of right of workers to use violent self-defence, no doubt meant these words, and few Marxists would question that nonviolent activism is indeed a collective legacy of many. But these words were made at the launch event for her book Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement (Haymarket Books, 2016), a text which includes support for the role of violent self-defence in the civil rights movement and includes an open discussion of the role of violence in other mass movements. For example, Davis states: “In South Africa, even as an international solidarity movement was being organized, the ANC (African National Congress) and the SACP (South African Communist Party) came to the conclusion that they needed an armed wing of their movement: Umkhonto We Sizwe. They had every right to make that decision.”

[4]A philosophy of nonviolence: Judith Butler interviewed by Alex Doherty,” Verso, September 14, 2020. In the recent past, the political advice offered by Butler to left-wing voters in the US presidential elections is far from ideal — for example Butler created a false equivalence between the openly pro-capitalist policies of Elizabeth Warren and those of Bernie Sanders, see Roger Lancaster, “How not to tackle COVID-19: Butler’s anticapitalism,”, April 10, 2020.

[5] Importantly the creation of a new peoples’ state was only the first step in an internationalist struggle of all workers against capitalism oppression globally. Hence the need for violence was not only critical to the self-defence of the newly emergent socialist state, but was still needed as a vital tool that could be used by the working-classes of other countries to overthrow their own capitalist regimes.

[6] The two letters under discussion were published as “Why war?” With regard to Freud’s non-socialist and biological determinist view of violence Freud writes: “It is a general principle, then, that conflicts of interest between men are settled by the use of violence. This is true of the whole animal kingdom, from which men have no business to exclude themselves.” In the next paragraph he adds: “Such, then, was the original state of things: domination by whoever had the greater might—domination by brute violence or by violence supported by intellect.”

[7] In his letter Freud dwells upon a common concern of intellectual elites of his day when he worries himself about the “evolution of culture” and its degradation by “uncultivated races and backward strata of the population [who] are already multiplying more rapidly than highly cultivated ones.” What Einstein thought of such eugenic arguments is not apparent, as he simply responded, this time in a personal letter, with “gratitude” by thanking Freud for his “magnificent” contribution; but we do know that Einstein believed that the one of the most troubling groups of individuals within society whose relentless “craving for power” acted as a barrier to the peace movement were warmongering capitalists. As Einstein put it, “that small but determined group, active in every nation, composed of individuals who, indifferent to social considerations and restraints, regard warfare, the manufacture and sale of arms, simply as an occasion to advance their personal interests and enlarge their personal authority.” Indeed, Einstein had asked Freud if it were “…possible to control man’s mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychoses of hate and destructiveness? Here I am thinking by no means only of the so-called uncultured masses. Experience proves that it is rather the so-called ‘Intelligentzia’ that is most apt to yield to these disastrous collective suggestions, since the intellectual has no direct contact with life in the raw, but encounters it in its easiest synthetic form—upon the printed page.” Letter to Freud, December 3, 1932 and Letter to Paul Ehrenfest, April 14, 1933, both quoted in Rowe, Einstein on Politics.

[8] Although Einstein was a dedicated fighter for the oppressed, he was far from being a socialist in a Marxist sense and was something of a cultural elitist. Although supportive of some aspects of the Bolshevik government, in the 1930s he became more conscious of the anti-democratic ambitions of the Comintern. In September 1932 he wrote to the Stalinist-dominated German Committee Against Imperialist Wars to voice his “regret” for previously supporting the related International Congress Against Imperialist Wars, highlighting his concern that “Prominent Social Democrats were excluded from the congress committee.” See David Rowe, Einstein on Politics: His Private Thoughts and Public Stands on Nationalism, Zionism, War, Peace and the Bomb (Princeton University Press, 2007). For different reasons Einstein also opposed the politics of the Trotskyist movement although he never adopted the popular cause of anti-Communism in the post war period. That said, Einstein was more akin to elite solutions whereby a few good men would act as “a kind of conscience for humanity” than remedies based upon organising the working-class.

Mark Edmundson, The Death of Sigmund Freud: Fascism, Psychoanalysis and the Rise of Fundamentalism (Bloomsbury, 2007) notes: “In Freud’s descriptions of humanity at its worst, he barely takes into account history, or economics, or the specific qualities of a given culture. He has no interest in thinking about how various external pressures—the loss of a horrible war, an unfair treaty, alternating periods of inflation and depression—could help bring on the tyranny he describes in Group Psychology.”

[9] These reactionary themes can also be found in Freud’s 1927 essay The Future of an Illusion: “Whereas we might at first think that its essence lies in controlling nature for the purpose of acquiring wealth and that the dangers which threaten it could be eliminated through a suitable distribution of that wealth among men, it now seems that the emphasis has moved over from the material to the mental. The decisive question is whether and to what extent it is possible to lessen the burden of the instinctual sacrifices imposed on men, to reconcile men to those which must necessarily remain and to provide a com­pensation for them. It is just as impossible to do without control of the mass by a minority as it is to dispense with coercion in the work of civilization. For masses are lazy and unintelligent; they have no love for instinctual renunciation, and they are not to be convinced by argument of its inevitability; and the indi­viduals composing them support one another in giving free rein to their indiscipline.”

[10] Capitalist elites like the Rockefeller Foundation were keen to support such benign socialist alternatives to revolutionary Marxism, see Charles Clavey, “Resiliency or resignation: Paul F. Lazarsfeld, Austro-Marxism, and the psychology of unemployment, 1919–1933,” Modern Intellectual History, 2019. Moreover, at the same time the Rockefeller Foundation financed the intellectual development of right-wing Austrian economists (like Friedrich Hayek) who worked closely with the League of Nations to help make the world safe for capitalism, see Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism(Harvard University Press, 2018). “It was Friedrich Hayek’s job to watch international economic trends. As director of the Rockefeller Foundation (RF)–sponsored Institute for Business Cycle Research from 1927 to 1931, he compiled and analyzed statistical data from around the globe, publishing his findings in the institute’s monthly newsletter.” Janek Wasserman, The Marginal Revolutionaries: How Austrian Economists Fought the War of Ideas (Yale University Press, 2019).

[11] Anson Rabinbach, The Crisis of Austrian Socialism: From Red Vienna to Civil War, 1927–1934(University of Chicago Press, 1983). “Otto Bauer in particular, proclaimed their rejection of Bolshevik vanguard elitism and avowed their democratic socialism. Their party, they claimed, was a mass party of members which was not simply directed from the top but equally animated by its rank and file. This view may have expressed the hopes of Bauer and other SDAP leaders, but it was not reflected in the life of the party, where a stable oligarchy dominated the pyramidal organizational structure and warded off factions or grass-roots initiatives which challenged its supremacy.” Helmut Gruber, Red Vienna: Experiment in Working-Class Culture, 1919-1934 (Oxford University Press, 1991), p.7.

[12] Marek Edelman, The Ghetto Fights: Warsaw 1943-45 (Bookmarks, 2014); Barbara Epstein, The Minsk Ghetto 1941-1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism (University of California Press, 2008); for a 55 page bibliography of various records of Jewish armed resistance, see

Michael Barker is the author of Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017).