Hobsbawm on Violence

A few weeks ago I posted some speculations on the nature of violence in conflict situations, and wondered why popular discourse on conflict so rarely examines the role and nature of violence itself.

My holiday reading included a collection of popular essays from the 1960s and 1970s by Eric Hobsbawm, easily my favourite historian to read (though not necessarily the best historian I’ve read). The book is called ‘Revolutionaries’, and one of the chapters is called The Rules of Violence. In it, he answers many of the questions that have formed in my own thinking about the subject and poses many more interesting ones. I quote some of his more interesting points below:

On the plurality of violence:

For the point to grasp about violence, as a social phenomenon, is that it exists only in the plural. There are actions of differing degrees of violence which imply different qualities of violence… It is quite useless… to treat these various types and degrees of violent action as essentially indistinguishable.

On the rules of violence:

Genuinely violent societies are always and acutely aware of [their] rules, just because private violence is essential to their everyday functioning, though we may not be so aware of them, because the normal amount of bloodshed in such societies may seem to us to be so intolerably high. Where, as in the Philippines, the fatal casualties in every election campaign are counted in the hundreds, it seems hardly relevant that, by Filipino standards, some of them are more open to condemnation than others. Yet there are rules. In the highlands of Sardinia they constitute an actual code of customary law, which has been formally described in legal terms by outside observers.

On the changing attitudes to violence as societies develop (equally relevant to societies in crisis):

One of the major dangers of societies in which direct violence no longer plays much part in regulating the everyday relations between people and groups, or in which violence has become depersonalized is that they lose the sense of such distinctions [rules]. In doing so they also dismantle certain social mechanisms for controlling the use of physical force.

On changing forms of violence (his references to anarchism reflect that this was written in 1969; today we can substitute terrorism in this quote):

Most traditional violence… assumes that … violent actions … have a specific and identifiable purpose. But a good deal of contemporary private violence … is non-operational, and public violence is consequently tempted into indiscriminate action. Private violence does not have to or cannot achieve very much against the really big and institutionalized wielders of force… Where it occurs it therefore tends to turn from action into a substitute for action… Some nominally political forms of violence (such as ‘trashing’ or some neo-anarchist bombing) are similarly irrational, since under most circumstances their political effect is either negligible or more usually counter-productive.

On personal realization through violence:

The terrible thing … is that for the disoriented fringe, for the weak and helpless poor, violence and cruelty – sometimes in the most socially ineffective and personalized sexual form – are the surrogate for private success and social power.

It seems to me that the lines of thought he begins to probe on personal realization, on the rules of violence and the changing forms of violence all remain centrally important in understanding violence as it exists in the developing world today. Elections will be held here in about 6 months, and are likely to be attended by various forms of violence. To understand why and how they will arise and can be mitigated should be a major concern of development agencies; but it can only be done if we understand exactly what violence achieves on multiple levels.

Hobsbawm is one of the best writers and most intelligent among modern historians. He is famously Marxist, but is more thoughtful and flexible than the vast majority of Marxist historians, and there have been few better writers on the great social upheavals of the 19th and 20th centuries. I would strongly recommend reading almost anything he has written.

Comments are closed.