First love

Vincenzo Ruggiero is professor of sociology at Middlesex University in London. His next book, Penal Abolitionism, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Go gentle into that last fight

Just as the universe needs attractive and repulsive forces, so society needs degrees of harmony and disharmony, cooperation and competition. This argument put forward by Georg Simmel influenced me and many of my generation. The first love, for us, was the discovery of the legitimacy of hate.

We are not monads. We constantly interact, and when engaging in conflict, and even hatred, we undergo a process of socialization that makes us competent individuals. Simmel uses a pictorial metaphor to distinguish static from conflictual societies. The society of saints which Dante Alighieri sees in his Rose of Paradise is a centripetal depiction of pure unification, but it is unreal as it lacks a life process, and shows no sign of possible change or development. By contrast, the holy assembly of the Church Fathers in Raphael's Disputa shows a considerable differentiation of moods and thoughts, from which vitality flows. Unfortunately, such conflict can be stretched and turned into all-encompassing forms of justification or techniques of neutralization. These techniques help deny the harm caused by our conduct, and serve the purpose of declaring our loyalty to "superior" values and a future "superior" order of things. Our first love, therefore, though meshed with hate for the present system, was projected toward the constitution of a new one. Some even linked the idea of a new system to that of a "new man". This is where serious trouble started.

Inspired by a univocal concept of conflict, groups of political activists started to see their violence as a noble response to the violence inherent in the status quo. In their view, "bad" institutionalized violence had to be followed by "good" violence, which was legitimated by its evil progenitor. What was proposed was a bellicose foundation for peace: the good war will put an end to the bad war. This approach applies to armed groups fighting states as well as to states waging wars. In both cases, what is sought is a radical new start leading to the foundation of a reconciled, superior humanity.

State violence, however, may be purely law-conserving, confining its objective to the protection of the stability of a system and the reinforcement of authority. The violence deployed by activists, by contrast, aimed to be foundational, in the sense that it was seen as instrumental for the establishment of a new system and the designation of a new authority. The process of change, one could argue, was inscribed in the agenda of history – as if linear, ineluctable progress was bound to bring radical renovation. The conviction that the advent of a new man was inevitable was accompanied by an indifference to its cost: if what is at stake is the new man, the man of the past may very well turn out to be disposable. The divorce of politics and morality, which runs through political philosophy at least since Hobbes and Machiavelli, is not a specific characteristic of armed organizations, but in their case it is radically intensified by the crucial variable "destiny". Once it is established that change is the natural outcome of evolutionary social processes, creative energy and violence become mere accelerating corollaries of the new settlement destined to follow. Such corollaries are nevertheless decisive; to defeat institutional violence for ever, a final, resolute burst of violence is inevitable. Armed struggle was guided by the search for a final solution, and engaged in what was perceived as the definitive clash leading to a world were clashes would be redundant. Perpetual peace was part of destiny, the absolute, definitive solution following destruction.

According to a well-known anecdote, in Nazi-occupied Paris, a German officer happened to visit Picasso's studio and was shocked when he saw the chaotic violence of Guernica. He asked: "Did you do this?" Picasso calmly replied: "No, you did this." Violent political activists would offer their own version of this anecdote. If asked whether the destruction they caused was the result of their left-wing ideology, they would reply that their violent acts were the result of official politics: "You did this!" In their self-perception, moreover, echoes of a celebrated Surrealist slogan could be heard: theirs was action married with dream. Think of Breton's action-thought, which is a challenge to conventional philosophizing, that is against solitary, inactive contemplation. Surrealism was very influential on sections of social movement throughout the 1960s and 70s, not so much for its theory of aesthetics, as for its declaration of hostility against the bourgeoisie, the enemy incarnate. It inspired political action because, in the 1920s, distancing itself from the "rationality", madness and chauvinism of World War I, Surrealism advocated the revolutionary inner urges and the omnipotence of dreams.

Similar intellectual points of reference put armed groups in a position to draw a comfortable cognitive map; providing them with an ability to locate their action within a meaningful whole. Everything was permitted to them, because they perceived themselves as direct instruments of a divinity, the historical necessity of progress. For other ideological influences, think of Sartre, whose ideas revolved around the notion that freedom has to be gained through evil. Sartre did not refer to the banality of evil, he just acknowledged the necessity of violence. In La putain respecteuse, Lizzie pushes the Black to kill the White who is threatening to lynch him for a crime he has not committed. She cannot resort to violence herself, she cannot afford such a disrespectful act. She is a slave of conventional morality. The Black, constrained by necessity, commits the crime in order to gain his freedom. In Le diable et le bon dieu, violence is the result of the pursuit of the absolute, the definitive, and of the total rejection of the existing world.

Only years later did members of these organizations, at least those who felt the need to speak publicly, develop a "critical cognitive mapping", in a sense shifting their allegiance from Sartre to Simone Weil. Absolute love and desire may be destructive. Limited desire, notes Weil, is in harmony with the world; desire and love that contain the infinite are not.

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