Critique of Violence



This is above all the case in the class struggle, in the form of the workers’ guaranteed right to strike. Organized labor is, apart from the state, probably today the only legal subject entitled to exercise violence. Against this view there is certainly the objection that an omission of actions, a nonaction, which a strike really is, cannot be described as violence. Such a consideration doubtless made it easier for a state power to conceive the right to strike, once this was no longer avoidable. But its truth is not unconditional, and therefore not unrestricted.

It is true that the omission of an action, or service, where it amounts simply to a “severing of relations,” can be an entirely nonviolent, pure means. And as in the view of the state, or the law, the right to strike conceded to labor is certainly not a right to exercise violence but, rather, to escape from a violence indirectly exercised by the employer, strikes conforming to this may undoubtedly occur from time to time and involve only a “withdrawal” or “estrangement” from the employer.

The moment of violence, however, is necessarily introduced, in the form of extortion, into such an omission, if it takes place in the context of a conscious readiness to resume the suspended action under certain circumstances that either have nothing whatever to do with this action or only superficially modify it. Understood in this way, the right to strike constitutes in the view of labor, which is opposed to that of the state, the right to use force in attaining certain ends.

The antithesis between the two conceptions emerges in all its bitterness in face of a revolutionary general strike. In this, labor will always appeal to its right to strike, and the state will call this appeal an abuse, since the right to strike was not “so intended,” and take emergency measures. For the state retains the right to declare that a simultaneous use of strike in all industries is illegal, since the specific reasons for strike admitted by legislation cannot be prevalent in every workshop. In this difference of interpretation is expressed the objective contradiction in the legal situation, whereby the state acknowledges a violence whose ends, as natural ends, it sometimes regards with indifference, but in a crisis (the revolutionary general strike) confronts inimically.

For, however paradoxical this may appear at first sight, even v conduct involving the exercise of a right can nevertheless, under certain circumstances, be described as violent. More specifically, such conduct, when active, may be called violent if it exercises a right in order to overthrow the legal system that has conferred it; when passive, it is nevertheless to be so described if it constitutes extortion in the sense explained above. It therefore reveals an objective contradiction in the legal situation, but not a logical contradiction in the law, if under certain circumstances the law meets the strikers, as perpetrators of violence, with violence.

For in a strike the state fears above all else that function of violence which it is the object of this study to identify as the only secure foundation of its critique. For if violence were, as first appears, merely the means to secure directly whatever happens to be sought, it could fulfill its end as predatory violence. It would be entirely unsuitable as a basis for, or a modification to, relatively stable conditions.

The strike shows, however, that it can be so, that it is able to found and modify legal conditions, however offended the sense of justice may find itself thereby. It will be objected that such a function of violence is fortuitous and isolated. This can be rebutted by a consideration of military violence.




The critique of violence is the philosophy of its history— the “philosophy” of this history, because only the idea of its development makes possible a critical, discriminating, and decisive approach to its temporal data. A gaze directed only at what is close at hand can at most perceive a dialectical rising and falling in the lawmaking and law-preserving formations of violence.

The law governing their oscillation rests on the circumstance that all law-preserving violence, in its duration, indirectly weakens the lawmaking violence represented by it, through the suppression of hostile counterviolence. (Various symptoms of this have been referred to in the course of this study.) This lasts until either new forces or those earlier suppressed triumph over the hitherto lawmaking violence and thus found a new law, destined in its turn to decay.

On the breaking of this cycle maintained by mythical forms of law, on the suspension of law with all the forces on which it depends as they depend on it, finally therefore on the abolition of state power, a new historical epoch is founded. If the rule of myth is broken occasionally in the present age, the coming age is not so unimaginably remote that an attack on law is altogether futile. But if the existence of violence outside the law, as pure immediate violence, is assured, this furnishes the proof that revolutionary violence, the highest manifestation of unalloyed violence by man, is possible, and by what means.

Less possible and also less urgent for humankind, however, is to decide when unalloyed violence has been realized in particular cases. For only mythical violence, not divine, will be recognizable as such with certainty, unless it be in incomparable effects, because the expiatory power of violence is not visible to men. Once again, all the eternal forms are open to pure divine violence, which myth bastardized with law. It may manifest itself in a true war exactly as in the divine judgment of the multitude on a criminal. But all mythical, lawmaking violence, which we may call executive, is pernicious. Pernicious, too, is the law-preserving, administrative violence that serves it.

Divine violence, which is the sign and seal but never the means of sacred execution, may be called sovereign violence


Notes on the Thought of Walter Benjamin: Critique of Violence

“Critique of Violence” (Zur Kritik der Gewalt)۱ is notorious for its obscurity, which, at least partly, is due to the impossibility of translating several of the key terms used by Benjamin into English. The immediate encapsulation of the task of a critique of violence conveyed in the German title and the first couple of sentences is entirely lost in the English translation. An etymological clarification is therefore important if we aspire to understand what a critique of violence consists of.

Critique (Kritik) should not primarily be understood as a negative evaluation or condemnation, but in the Kantian tradition of judgement, evaluation, and examination on the basis of means provided by the critique itself. A more significant problem is however the translation of Gewalt—which in German carries the multiple meanings of  (public) force, (legitimate) power, domination, authority and violencewith the English “violence” which carries few of these senses (particularly, institutional relations of power, force and domination or even non-physical or ‘symbolic’ violence). That the task of a critique of violence is to be understood as expounding the relationship of violence (Gewalt) to law (Recht) and justice (Gerechtigkeit), is thus much less artificial and obscure.

Two further etymological clarifications are however necessary to fully understand the task of Zur Kritik der Gewalt. Recht, as the Latin Ius, carries the meaning of both rights and law (as in the general system of laws), which is juxtaposed to specific laws, Gesetz corresponding to the Latin Lex. Sittliche verhältnisse, translated to “moral relations,” presents a more significant problem in terms of translation. In English it is not immediately clear why the sphere of law and justice can be understood as the sphere of moral relations. Morality carries the Kantian tradition of an abstract universal law (Moralität) in English, than the Hegelian tradition (Sittlichkeit). In Philosophie des Rechts, Sittlichkeit is the term used for the political framework of ethical life, that is, the family, civil society and the state. Violence is thus to be critiqued on basis of its relations to law and rights within the framework of ethical life in the state (sittliche Verhältnisse).“For a cause” Benjamin writes “becomes violent, in the precise sense of the word, when it enters into moral relations” (p. 236). Benjamin is thus not interested in force or violence of nature (Naturgewalt); but the violence present within the framework of the society, and ultimately, the state.

The critique of violence can only be undertaken through the philosophy of the history of violence (or we might add, in a “deconstruction” of the philosophy of the history of violence), Benjamin argues. In his “deconstruction” of the relationship between violence, law and justice, Benjamin erects several pairs of opposition. However, as Derrida pointed out, many of these deconstruct themselves.۲ The first such pair of oppositions is natural law (Naturrechts) and positive law (positive Rechts), which even though they in general are understood as antithetical (natural law is concerned with the justice of ends, positive law is concerned with the justification of means) share a fundamental dogma, namely that a relationship of justification exists between means and ends. For this reason, the two theories agree that violence as a means can be justified if it is in accordance with the law. Benjamin raises the following objections against this dogma: if the relation of justification between means and ends is presupposed, it is not possible to raise a critique of violence eo ipso but only applications of violence. Hereby, the question of whether violence in principle can be a moral means even to a just end is made impossible to address. By insisting on critiquing violence in itself, Benjamin challenges the fundamental dogma of jurisprudence, namely, that justice can be attained if means and ends are balanced, that is, if justified means are used for just ends.

?The question, thus, is how violence and law relate to one another


سیاست و بوطیقای خشونت الهی

بنیامین با نظر به آرای ژرژ سورل تفاوت میان دو نوع اعتصاب را بیان می‌کند: اعتصاب سیاسی و اعتصاب عمومی پرولتری. او معتقد است که این دو در ارتباطشان با خشونت، متضاد هستند. بنیامین به نقل از سورل می نویسد: «اعتصاب عمومیِ سیاسی نشان می‌دهد که چگونه دولت به هیچ‌وجه قدرتش را از دست نمی‌دهد. چگونه قدرت در میان خودِ طبقه‌ی ممتاز می‌گردد، و چگونه توده‌ی تولیدکننده، کارفرمایان خود را تعویض می کنند.» اما در مقابل اعتصاب عمومی پرولتری، تمام توان و کار ـ Aufgabe ـ خود را به منظور براندازی ـ Vernichtung ـ جایگاه قدرت به کار می‌گیرد. بنیامین باز از سورل نقل قول می‌کند: «اعتصاب عمومی وضوحاً با اعلان هدف براندازی دولت، از بی‌اعتنایی خودش به همه‌ی دستاوردهای مادّی که از غلبه و تصرّفات به دست آمده‌اند، خبر می‌دهد.» سبک و سیاقی که از خلالش، بنیامین تمایز میان این دو نوع اعتصاب را از نو تفسیر می‌کند، غیرمستقیم است:

«او اعتصاب سیاسی را خشن قلمداد می‌کند، به این خاطر که این نوع اعتصاب، تنها به یک تغییر و تحوّل بیرونی در شرایط کار منجر می‌شود. به هر حال از آنجا که هیچ نوع آمادگی برای از سر گرفتن کار پس از اعطای امتیازات بیرونی وجود ندارد، اعتصاب پرولتری مبرّا از خشونت است، و آنچه هست تصمیم و عزمی است به منظور از سرگیری تنها آن کاری که سراسر دگرگون شده و تحت تسلّط دولت نباشد.»

به همین دلیل است که او اولی را برسازنده‌ی قانون و دومی را آنارشیستیک می‌نامد. این تمایز میان اعتصاب سیاسی خشونت آمیز و اعتصاب مبرّا از خشونتِ پرولتری، معنای دقیق خود را در زمینه‌ی قرائت آگامبن از پرونده‌ی بنیامین/ اشمیت نشان می‌دهد. چرا که اعتصاب سیاسی، پیوندی که باعث اتّحاد میان خشونت و قانون می‌شود، و یا دیالکتیک میان خشونتِ حافظ و برسازنده‌ی قانون را دست نخورده و سالم باقی می‌گذارد و بنیامین به همین دلیل آن را خشونت (و خشن) می‌خواند. کاربرد آن در مقاله‌ی بنیامین، به عنوان نمونه‌ای از خشونت توصیف می‌شود که می‌تواند سبب تنها یک تغییر بیرونی در وضعیت کار شود، اما نمی‌تواند در کلیّت امر کار تغییر بنیادینی ایجاد نماید. (این نمونه‌ای از خشونتی است که درون منطق حاکمیت باقی می‌ماند و نمی‌تواند که وضعیتی حقیقتاً استثنائی ایجاد کند)

بنیامین اعتصاب پرولتری را نیز مبرّا از خشونت (غیرجابرانه) می‌داند، چرا که پیوند میان خشونت و قانون را می‌گسلد و با به تعلیق در آوردنِ تمایز میان خشونت­های حافظ و برسازنده‌ی قانون، یک وضعیت حقیقتاً استثنائی ایجاد می­کند. اعتصاب مبرّا از خشونتِ پرولتری، نمونه‌ای از خشونت الهی است که درمقاله‌ی نقدِ خشونت معرفی شده است: چیزی که برسازندگی اسطوره‌ای قانون را ویران می‌کند اما ـ آنچه که باید بر آن درنگ کرد این است که ـ این بدان معنا نیست که خودِ قانون از بین می‌رود. فعلی که بنیامین به منظور معرفی عمل خشونت الهی به کار می‌برد، نه تخریب ـ destroy ـ ( به آلمانی vernichten) است و نه معدوم کردن ـ abolish ـ ( آن گونه که ترجمه‌ی انگلیسیِ مقاله، آن را به کار برده) بلکه aufheben است. هنگامی که بنیامین این فعل را در ترکیب با واژه‌ی Aufgabe (توان/کار) به­کار می‌گیرد، همان گونه که منتقدان درباره‌ی ترجمه‌ی آثار بنیامین بارها و بارها بدان اشاره کرده‌اند، مؤلفه‌های معنایی دو اصطلاح کار/ وظیفه و رهاکردن را در برمی‌گیرد. البته نباید در قضاوتی عجولانه این گونه پنداشت که «ویران کردن» همان «وظیفه»‌ای است که بنیامین پیش­روی خوانندگانش نهاده است، باید سراسر قید این خوانش های ساده‌لوحانه (و این­گونه سیاست‌ها) را زد.




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