The attempted assassination of several GOP congressmen in Alexandria, Va., by a far-left ideologue has ignited a national conversation on how the Left has made violence mainstream.
Hollywood liberals regularly use violent rhetoric against conservatives. College campuses have become places where dissident speech will be beaten down, literally, by Antifa thugs in black masks. Under the guise of protests against racial injustice, Black Lives Matter creates riots. Property is destroyed. Fires are set. Individuals are assaulted. The civil society seems threatened — all by the radical Left.
While what’s happening on the Left has been well documented, few are exploring the question of “Why?”
The violence of modern leftists is a feature of their political philosophy, which rejects natural rights secured by government in favor of legal rights created by political power. Violence is the lowest form of political power, and the use of violence is consistent with progressive political philosophy.
In his seminal book, “On War,” Carl von Clausewitz wrote the famous axiom “War is politics by other means.” In their highest form, the political relations between two nations are characterized by diplomacy. In their lowest, by violent warfare. When dialogue breaks down, one nation will use force to resolve disputes and impose its will upon another through conquest. The American founding fathers understood that this is true of individual men as well, a consequence of mankind’s fallen human nature.
In the political philosophy of the American founding, individuals possess certain rights by nature as human beings. This thinking is best summarized by the truth in The Declaration of Independence: That all human beings, created equal, are endowed by their creator with certain rights and that the entire purpose of human government is to secure these rights.
Because human beings are “created equal,” no one man has the authority in nature to exercise power over another — to infringe upon his natural rights. But absent government, in a state of nature, the rights and liberties of individuals are threatened by the violence of other individuals, as Thomas G. West and Douglas A. Jeffrey explain in “The Rise & Decline of Constitutional Government in America.”
As Madison says, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” That is, human beings are not perfectly rational, or good. As a result, death, slavery, and misery characterize the state of nature. Therefore people join to form governments to secure their natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (Emphasis added.)
In the founders’ understanding, the role of government is to secure the natural rights of its citizens, preventing them from doing violence to one another by the enforcement of laws.
The Left has rejected this natural-rights philosophy of the American founding wholesale in favor of a very different view of government and of rights.
As John Marini writes in “Abandoning the Constitution,” early progressivism “insisted that rights and freedom could not be understood as natural or individual, but social and dependent upon historical development.” Marini quotes the progressive thinker Mary Parker Follett, at length, for her “clarity” in expressing this rejection.
If my true self is the group-self, then my only rights are those which membership in a group gives me. The old idea of natural rights postulated the particularist individual; we know now that no such person exists. The group and the individual come into existence simultaneously: with this group-man appears group-rights. Thus man can have no rights apart from society or independent of society or against society. Particularist rights are ruled out as everything particularist is ruled out…. The truth of the whole matter is that our only concern with rights is not to protect them but to create them. Our efforts are to be bent not upon guarding the rights which Heaven has showered upon us, but in creating all the rights we shall ever have…. [As] the group process abolishes individual right, so it gives us a true definition of liberty. We have seen that the free man is he who actualizes the will of the whole. I have no liberty except as an essential member of a group…to obey the group which we have helped to make and of which we are an integral part is to be free because we are then obeying our self. Ideally the state is such a group. (Emphasis added.)
Rights, then, according to progressives, are not natural. They are created. They cannot be secured; they must be actualized by will. And they are not immutable truths. They are conditional, dependent on historical circumstance, and therefore changing with the course of human events, the march of history. And they are effected by power. As more rights are effected, the more we progress.
“Progress!” President Woodrow Wilson once exclaimed. “No word comes more often or more naturally to the lips of modern man …” Wilson fully embraced the progressive understanding that government must have the flexibility and power to create conditions upon freedom in society. He resented the restrictions upon government imposed by the Constitution and viewed power as a positive good. In an 1890 essay “Leaders of Men,” Wilson fawns over how the “competent” leader uses power and force for progress.
The competent leader of men cares little for the interior niceties of other people’s characters: he cares much-everything for the external uses to which they may be put. His will seeks the lines of least resistance; but the whole question with him is a question of the application of force. There are men to be moved: how shall he move them? He supplies the power; others supply only the materials upon which that power operates. The power will fail if it be misapplied; it will be misapplied if it be not suitable both in kind and method to the nature of the materials upon which it is spent; but that nature is, after all, only its means. It is the power which dictates, dominates: the materials yield. Men are as clay in the hands of the consummate leader.
“Resistance is left to the minority,” Wilson writes later in this essay. “And such as will not be convinced are crushed.” The philosophical understanding that rights are created by political power requires a government with nearly unlimited power effect those rights, a government with the power to “crush” those who stand in the way of “progress.”
Upon this foundation, this philosophical understanding of power, is built the left-wing penchant for violence.
While the modern Left shares the older progressives’ understanding that power creates right, it does not share their blind faith in institutions like government. No, society’s social institutions and government structures are tools of oppression. The Constitution is a racist document. The patriarchy of religious institutions oppresses women. Language itself is exclusionary, and words like “male” and “female” must be purged to accommodate “non-binary” sexual preferences and feelings.
Political power cannot be placed solely in these corrupted institutions. It must be exercised by individuals themselves.
That the modern Left claims the word “oppression” for its identity groups is significant. It is a word that connotes violence done to those who are subjugated. The victimology of modern-day progressives, the belief that they are recipients of violence, is used to rationalize real violence. The Hegelian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek (quoted by Kevin D. Williamson in his exceptional piece at National Review), shows how the implementation of violence on the Left, then, is a matter of strategic timing.
This is why the standard liberal motto — that violence is never legitimate, even though it may sometimes be necessary to resort to it — is insufficient. From a radical emancipatory perspective, this formula should be reversed: for the oppressed, violence is always legitimate (since their very status is the result of the violence they are exposed to), but never necessary (it will always be a matter of strategy whether or not use violence against the enemy).
What inspired James T. Hodgkinson to shoot Republican members of Congress? A belief that President Trump’s policies are an existential threat to those on the Left who identify as members of oppressed minorities. He determined that violent action was the best means of opposing the president at this time. The president and his party must be resisted at all costs. “What is the next step to an active resistance?” asks Melissa Mackenzie at the American Spectator. “It’s really not complicated: Armed resistance.”
The Left’s political philosophy formulates oppression as widespread and institutionalized. It understands political power to effect change. What follows, then, is only logical, as Jesse Benn writes for the Huffington Post in “Sorry Liberals, A Violent Response To Trump Is As Logical As Any.”
Firstly, violence is an expression of political power that effects change.
Violent resistance matters. Riots can lead to major change…. It’s not liberal politicians or masses that historians identify as the spark underlying the modern movement for LGBTQ equality. Nor was it a think piece from some smarmy liberal writer. It was the people who took to the streets during the Stonewall Uprising. It was the Watts Rebellion, not the Watts Battle of Ideas, that exposed the enduring systemic neglect, poverty, inequality, and racism faced by that community. Similarly, it was the LA Uprising, not the LA Protests, that led to significant changes in the Los Angeles Police Department. More recently, the Ferguson and Baltimore Uprisings both helped prompt the Justice Department to investigate their corrupt police forces.
Secondly, for oppressed groups, violence is a natural and logical tool that can end their perceived oppression.
Last, I want to briefly note the problematic nature of people with privilege condemning violent resistance to Trump as an absolute moral failing, or denying its logic. Whether you would personally engage in violent conduct matters little to your ability to understand where it comes from. Some people have the privilege to consider the implications of Trump’s rise in the abstract and negotiate which means are necessary. That’s not true for everyone. And when those who hold that privilege dismiss the potential validity or logic of violent resistance, it’s effectively an effort to dictate the rules under which oppressed peoples respond to existential threats, and to silence forms of resistance disagreeable to privileged sensibilities.
The Left’s embrace of violence is entirely consistent with its political philosophy – the embrace of power. The demand that conservatives be silenced by force on college campuses falls neatly into line with Wilson’s proclamation that those “as will not be convinced are crushed.”
There is no need to imagine what a crushed resistance looks like when this thinking is developed to its conclusion. Look to the gulags of Soviet Russia, the counterrevolutionary campaign of Mao Zedong’s China, the killing fields of Cambodia, and the ravaged Christian churches of Mosul. This is human nature, unrestrained, unmoored from revelation and reason, and given power — tyranny.
Left-wing politics cannot be separated from violence because of progressives’ philosophic understanding of power and their rejection of natural right and natural law. Until this is understood, until a moral argument is built against the unrestricted use of political power, violence will remain the logical conclusion for some on the Left.
Author: Chris Pandolfo
Chris Pandolfo is a staff writer and type-shouter for Conservative Review. He holds a B.A. in politics and economics from Hillsdale College. His interests are conservative political philosophy, the American founding, and progressive rock. Follow him on Twitter for doom-saying and great album recommendations @ChrisCPandolfo.