Springingtiger's Blog

Thoughts on Political Violence


In this year of the centennial commemoration of the Easter Rising of 1916 it occurs to me that the only argument against political violence lies in morality and in morality alone. I know that there are many who will argue that terrorism and assassination are contrary to law and that rebellion against the government is treason and they are absolutely correct. However they forget that laws are made (largely) and changed by men.

The rebels of 1916 who were executed by the British after secret courts martial were guilty of treason, murder, incitement to violence and destruction of property at the time they were killed. However a few years later they were no longer traitors and criminals, but heroes and freedom fighters who had been murdered by a foreign invader. The writings of James Connolly, Padraig Pearse and the other opponents of British colonial rule are no longer sedition, instead they are a legitimate call to free Ireland from the English.

There was a time when Menachem Begin was a terrorist and part of the murder gang known as Irgun. He thought nothing of murdering English soldiers and nurses in the British Protectorate of Palestine. However the protectorate of Palestine became the State of Israel and the terrorist became a hero and a statesman who later received the Nobel Peace prize for negotiating peace between Israel and Egypt.

George Washington and the founding fathers of the United States of America were traitors and rebels who became in turn the respected fathers of a nation and architects of its Constitution. However that constitution and the Bill of Rights can now be ruthlessly breached and people exposed to injustice because those who do so have been elected. It doesn’t matter how corrupt a political system has become those in power make the laws and hence their actions are legal. It must be remembered that when they are displaced however illegally those who displace them become the lawmakers and their actions become legal in retrospect.

Vladimir Illyich Lenin was also a law breaking revolutionary to whom is often attributed the quotation, “The purpose of terrorism is to terrorise.” The October Revolution had been preceded by other insurrections, by industrial actions, but also by political assassinations. After the Bolshevik revolution and triumph in the Russian Civil War Lenin was no longer a criminal, but the leader of a country and the revolutionary bank robber, Stalin became a politician and later President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

We began in 1916. If we go forward a few years the War of Irish Independence began with the assassinations of British colonial forces with an escalation in the Bloody Sunday shootings of November 1920. The Military Rule Britain imposed upon Ireland was legal and so were the negotiations and Irish Government that brought it to a close. The partition of Ireland is legal and backed by treaty, its fairness and legitimacy is still questioned by some. Were those who oppose partition to successfully end it then a united Ireland would be the new legitimacy.

Every freedom struggle in history has been illegal at its outset regardless of how unjust the regime rebelled against or how illegitimate its claim of right to rule. It is success that legitimises the freedom struggle. There is no divine right of kings, no one class has a right to rule, and the hereditary wealth seized by the ancestors of the ruling classes may equally be seized back by the people and legitimised by new laws. I believe that it is important that any action to bring about the freedom of a people has a strong moral foundation in the opposition to injustice, but its legality will be resolved by successful execution of its objectives.

There is one serious caveat here. There are regimes that acquire legality by force that have no moral legitimacy, their rule stands on strength of arms like Franco in Spain who overthrew a democratic government for personal profit. However whatever the motivation of the revolution with success it becomes the arbiter of what is legal and its actions become justified in its law, the political violence of the victorious is rendered legal and justified by victory. Whether this is a good thing is perhaps questionable.


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