The Limits of Violence

The Limits of Violence
Lessons of a Revolutionary Life as Told by Elán Le Vieux to Ira Chaleff
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Overview

Organized violence of man on man continues to be part of the human experience. In many cases, despotic regimes perpetrate this violence. In other situations, violence is the response of people that rebel against oppressive systems.

In the book “The Limits of Violence: Lessons of a Revolutionary Life”, Ira Chaleff compiles the memories and reflections of Élan Le Vieux, a hundred year old revolutionary who lived through much of the political turmoil of the 20th century.

Under the premise that people have the right to stand up to an oppressive regime, Élan focus the violent methods of revolutionary struggle, their legitimacy, consequences and limits. He analyzes the challenge of replacing an oppressive regime without becoming the new oppressor. With this approach, Élan contributes to the conception, development and preservation of the highest values of any genuine revolution, independent of its ideological views.

Élan’s counsel to 21st century revolutionaries is to first analyze if they can achieve their goals through reforms before concluding that revolution is the only mechanism.

Once negotiations for freedom from oppression are exhausted, Élan calls for consideration of modern revolutionary tools that can become as or more effective than the traditional armed struggle.

If the final judgment is that violence to combat violence is the only possible course of action, Élan examines how to do this without becoming a violent individual or establishing a regime as oppressive as the one the revolutionary is trying to overthrow.

Throughout this book, Élan offers an ethical revolutionary path to becoming a great historical character that future generations will admire and honor.


Editorial Review

Revolutionary leaders

Through his tale, Élan frequently refers to three revolutionary leaders of the 21st Century: Vladimir Illich Ulianov or Lenin, who ruthlessly exerted power in the name of the revolution, Ernesto “Che” Guevara who was pulled between love and hate as the drivers of the Cuban revolution and Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela who exhausted peaceful means to change injustice and picked up weapons, yet did not become a violent leader or establish a violent regime.
Through these examples he examines questions such as: What is the purpose of power? When, if ever, can violent means be contemplated? How can violence overtake the leader and the revolution? How can it be limited so it does not betray the goals of the revolution? What lessons can we learn for our own time?

Revolutionary followers

The singularity of Élan’s approach is his focus on the role of revolutionary followers as trustees of the revolution’s final success. On this point, Élan offers a set of guidelines to establish positive dynamics in the leader-follower relationship. As well as setting a limit to violence, Élan affirms that there exists a limit to obedience and a clear difference between loyalty to the leader and loyalty to the revolution and its core human values.


Endorsements

David Korten: Author of When Corporations Rule the World and The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism.

What a book for our time. The manuscript has a dark power, while carrying a sense of profound wisdom relevant to all revolutionaries, including those of us who reject violent means.

Félix Ulloa: PhD Salvadoran Lawyer: former member of FMLN/FDR (Revolutionary Coalition of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front and the Democratic National Front) during the civil war in El Salvador (1970-1980)

If this book had been published in the 60’s/70’s, we would be living in a better world today. It gives the kind of tools that can change mankind’s path.

Sabrina Kellen, Spanish Edition

A very entertaining and easy to read approach to the complex problematic of revolutionary tyrannies that have brought so much frustration to the idealist of today, yesterday and forever.

Daniel Alvarado, Spanish Edition

A compendium of lessons for all those close to a strong leader both in the social and political world as well as in institutional and even family scenarios.

Amelia Macia, Spanish Edition

I love the character of Old Élan. His narration seduces to the extent that I read the whole book for the first time in just one night and, taking into account that I’m not very interested in politics, it can be said that this book catches even the most cautious.

Francisco, Spanish Edition

Without reaching the extremes of armed revolutions, Élan’s lessons are also valid to progressive governments that arrive in power with strong popular support. In the wake of accomplishing the changes promised during the electioneering, these governments fall into the temptation of shutting off dialog with the opposition and exposing themselves to countless numbers of destabilizing actions, and even coups, which slowly win consensus among the non radicalized majority that gave its support in the electoral act.

Featured Chapter

CHAPTER III: MONSTERS AND REVOLUTIONARY CHAOS

Section 1: What makes a monster?
When we look at the baby pictures of tyrants we cannot detect any trace of the monsters they became. Perhaps the greatest of all the needs of humanity if we are to finally mature as a race is to understand how monsters become political leaders or how political leaders become monsters. We do not know the answer to this critical question. We do not even know if becoming a political leader brings out the monster or if it is the monster who seeks political power.

If we knew these things we might have saved a hundred million lives in the last century from brutal, premature deaths. We can barely fathom this, it is so staggering! But the fact that we do not know the answers does not mean we cannot know something about the subject, perhaps enough to avoid the rise of a particular monster in a particular place and time. Perhaps your place and time.

Chances are that you are already fighting a monster. This is not necessarily so, as the system itself may be so corrupt that it is not driven by an individual monster. The system has made petite monsters of many. Regardless, monstrous things are occurring and, in many cases, an individual holds the supreme power who has become monstrous or who tolerates monstrosity.

The terrible truth I must confront you with here, is that many of these monsters, past and current, were once themselves idealistic revolutionaries. Therefore, this discussion is of the utmost importance to you. I am not necessarily claiming that they were monsters before or during the revolution. Often they were brave visionaries. But we know that many revolutionaries have behaved as monsters once the revolution succeeded.

What a terrible thought! To fear the results of the revolution’s success when the revolution itself is fighting against monsters! This sounds like anti-revolutionary propaganda. A tactic to confuse. A call for inaction. It is not! It is a warning, a terrible trumpet alerting all that the dangers of victory are as great as the dangers of defeat. We must think now how we will deal with victory if it is a victory worth winning and a victory worth killing and dying for.

History is not offering us one or two aberrations as examples. The recently past twentieth century strew the ground with bloody examples, making them almost a terrible normality. Leaders who people depended on to lead them along a new path, somehow turned that path into an autobahn to hell, studded with mass graves, starved children, midnight knocks at the door, weeping dungeons, instruments of torture and the bones of those who died screaming and broken. If we cannot know the ultimate answer to how this occurs, what can we know about it? What can you do about it so your own revolution and its revered leaders stay true to their vision, to the vision for which you fight? So they do not succumb to this other force whose nature we have yet to clarify?

The place to start is within ourselves. There is apparently a small egg or seed of a monster within each of us. This may not be absolutely true, but it is true of many of us. There are different theories about this egg, some religious, some evolutionary, some biochemical. We do not know which theories have merit. Nor do we know how this egg becomes fertilized, how it begins to develop. Biographies of monsters always search for this. It seems always to be an individual story. A father who did this. A mother who did that. A beloved brother who was killed for his reformist beliefs, setting off an unquenchable thirst for revenge. In hindsight we can always piece together some sort of story to explain what we urgently need to understand. But these are stories told in hindsight and rarely do us good now.

I submit to you, my brave revolutionary, that you must assume that the egg is there within each of us and most especially within yourself. You can picture it if you wish. Give it a shape and color. Feel its weight and texture and temperature. Smell its faint, ominous odor. In your mind, make it look like something real because, though invisible, it is as real as the DNA which shapes every aspect of your body. Recognize that within that egg, lays all the monstrosity the world has known, and under the right conditions it may be incubated, hatch, and seize control of you. Given the wrong influences, the right opportunity, a certain amount of power, and it could hatch within you and use your own life force to sustain and grow the monster that lay dormant in its sac.

So we learn how to abort the birth of monsters by first looking within ourselves and recognizing that monsters within are as dangerous as the monster without, and more insidious. Somehow, the Trojan horse has entered our gates and hid within our walls, waiting for the right moment to reveal itself and destroy us. Just as under colonialism and neo-colonialism, self-hate entered our hearts and formed a layer under our skins. The great battle we must fight is to recognize that the enemy is within us, that we must not externalize it onto others. Even if our philosophy tells us this enemy is reactionary thinking, or Manichean thinking, or Satan or a jinni or voodoo, it is still within us and the battle must be fought within and not be erroneously displaced onto others.

We must summon the greater power we have, whether we view this as rationality, or will, or God and the prophet of God, or our fundamental sense of morality. We must summon this power and use it to own the other power that is within us and has become a part of us. By seeing it is a part of us, and recognizing that the part cannot be stronger than the whole, we can relegate it to its place as a potential that we will not allow to manifest. We must do this ourselves through personal responsibility and, at the same time, we must use whatever means of support are at our disposal culturally to help us do this. We can pray, we can fast, we can seek counseling or guidance, and we can utilize communal self-criticism or share our darkest fears with a trusted comrade. However imperfectly we prevail, we must prevail.

I want you to stop now and find this egg! If your revolution is important to you, as I know it is, I want you to stop right now and do your best to find it within yourself.

Get a picture in your mind’s eye. It does not matter whether the picture is clear or flimsy. Just do your best. Then locate a spot in your body where this imaginary egg might lay hidden. See it lying there, hidden, undetected, waiting for the right conditions. I’m serious. Close your eyes and keep them closed until you can imagine this egg within you. Then you can open your eyes again and turn the page.


Now that you can imagine this egg, imagine the conditions that would incubate the egg in you. Would the brutal death of those you love the most fertilize the egg? Would the power to wreak vengeance on those who did you wrong fertilize it? Would unlimited access to secret bank accounts and sexual orgies provide the spark? Would the taste of power that comes with torturing another trigger a pleasure center in your brain more addictive than a drug? Would paranoia that others were coveting the power you had gained begin the relentless growth of the monster in the egg? Would working day and night, year after year, thinking of nothing else but gaining power hatch the monster? Would being surrounded by people who did your bidding whenever you raged at them, teach the monster to grow more fierce? There are some combinations of conditions which are favorable for the gestation of this egg that you must become aware of and monitor.

Please, my sons and daughters, take time now to close your eyes and discover what potential is in you. Sit quietly for a while. Contemplate this. Then you can begin reading again. It is more important that you learn about yourself than you read my words. They will just be empty if you do not use them to learn about yourself.

Thank you for the courage to explore your own potential for evil. This is the same courage we are asking of society, to explore and understand its own evil. Only then can it transform and cease being the unjust thing it has become. It all starts with the courage to see the parts of ourselves that are not attractive, that we would rather disown. To strip away the superstructure that tells us we are good, and to admit that we are partly good and partly not good. Only then can the process of choice about changing things begin.

Now we can embark on the next leg of the journey. If there are conditions that are favorable to awakening the malevolent spore, then there are surely conditions that are unfavorable to doing so. What are they? This is an urgent question that must be answered by each individual who is accruing power. What are the conditions you can create that are toxic to monster eggs, which suffocate them in the womb?

The desirable conditions are undoubtedly different for each individual. Imagine what they are for you. Is it to pray for humility every night? To pray to be able to forgive the terrible transgressions against you and your loved ones? To work with the sick and dying to learn and relearn humility? To laugh with young children? To read philosophy? To gather people around you who are not afraid of you? To read the history of despots and the fate they meet by their contemporaries or by the unintimidated pen of history? Is it to create a system in which no one can have dominant power? Is it to imagine your death six months from now and how you would want to be remembered? Is it to resign your command when you feel the egg straining to hatch, before the monster emerges to devour you?

By wrestling with the terrible truth of the monster egg within ourselves, we can sense the power it can attain over our leaders and their lieutenants. We do not want to lose our revered leaders or loyal right hand men to this enemy that attacks from within. But until we let ourselves grasp the power of the monster within the egg once it hatches and matures, we will not inoculate them early enough to make a damn of difference. The monster will hatch and quickly grow through adolescence and harden into its ugly, fully-grown form. At that point it will simply eat anything in its path and will not stop until it is killed by something stronger than itself or by the ultimate leveler, time.

If we understand the corrosive nature of this egg, of the terrible growth of the hatchling, we would pour the remedy down the leader’s throat as quickly as we would administer quinine for malaria. Even if he struggled, we would not hesitate to inoculate him against a wildly infectious disease that threatened him and his whole country. If we knew it would save his health, his life, his people, his good name, then out of our respect for him, out of love for him, we would administer the prevention needed.

If we have begun with ourselves, by confronting the potential monster within us, we can face others without seeking to become their police, their judges or their executioners. We can be their loyal followers and help ensure they continue to earn our loyalty. We are all imperfect agents of change, all potential carriers of the virulent egg, and all fellow protectors of the revolutionary ideal.

Ah, there is that word – ideal. Remember always, an ideal is something we strive for. It is rarely, if ever, something we reach. We are not ideal. Our leaders are not ideal. Our revolution is not ideal. It is not treasonous to recognize in which ways we or our leaders fall short of our ideals. All along the way, we depart in greater or lesser degrees from the ideal. This is not shameful. It is human. It only becomes shameful if we cease learning from our departures, cease striving for our ideal, while insisting that others live by the ideal. Then we become hypocrites and hypocrites are deeply shameful and have to hurt or destroy others to hide their shame.

And remember this: the food, the fertilizer, the nourishment of monstrous eggs is power and the craving for power. This is the great paradox of revolutions. All revolutions seek to redistribute power. Our leaders need greater power to achieve their revolutionary goals. Without power they cannot combat evils, cannot create justice. It is our duty to help them acquire power. Our goal. Yet by this very act we expose them to the dangers of the monster in the egg awakening.

As we are successful, as we acquire the power to command the world’s attention, to bring the repressive regime to the bargaining table or send it fleeing into exile, as we mobilize the masses in the street, as all the things come to pass for which we have given everything, the egg begins to awaken. Our greatest moments of triumph contain the seeds of the greatest threat to our ideals and dreams. This is the paradox to which every revolutionary must stay aware.

As power is attained a dangerous cycle ensues. Those who acquire some earthly power enjoy its taste. They exercise it, as they should, for power must be used. They experience the satisfying sensation of strength and utilization one feels when exercising muscles. The sensation encourages them to use the power more and, in doing so, they find it even more enjoyable. A deep pleasure center is activated in their brains where the acquisition of power is a key evolutionary strategy. It is so intensely enjoyable that we might surmise it acts like a drug, and the beginnings of craving for the drug can be seen or felt.

It is at this point that a vicious cycle can begin. Those who taste power may now begin to fear losing it, perhaps as an addict may become anxious about losing his supply of drugs. They may begin to act differently in small ways to keep their power and, unwittingly, begin feeding the egg. Their small actions are less pure than actions they previously took. They are aware of this, though they push the awareness to the periphery of their minds. They are aware, though they will not admit so, that their impure acts injure others.

Now, we can surmise, another cycle pursues. They fear retaliation if the other whom they have injured acquires his own power. So they are prone to further injure the other to weaken his ability to retaliate. And, if they do, they become more fearful of retaliation. The egg grows. If not interrupted, the cycle continues spiraling. The egg enlarges and eventually reaches the point of hatching. If the cycle is not broken soon, the egg reaches its full size and bursts open, spawning virulent creatures all around its breeched shell.

Some of the great thinkers on this subject go even further. I have sought out the thinkers on this subject for decades, so desperately have I wanted answers to this phenomenon I have observed. How to explain the horrifying phenomenon of the millions of deaths at the hands of those who started off to free their people of oppression – my friends V.I. and Uncle Joe “The Eagle of Georgia”, Chairman Mao, Pol Pot? And these are just the more famous.

Perhaps this is the egg. Perhaps even before we, ourselves, kill another in battle, or in a revolutionary tribunal, we see others fall around us. Even if we love them, and will miss them, we feel an unspeakable, inadmissible satisfaction deep within ourselves that we are better than they, as we have survived and they are dead. It fills us with an odd and delicious sense of power. Not being able to admit this perverse feeling in the face of our comrades’ deaths, even to ourselves, the egg begins to hatch. If this sense of power feels so good, how to experience it again? And again? And again?

The cycle of fear of retaliation meshes with the cycle of addiction and craving for power, each reinforcing the other. The cycle becomes irreversible and spins out of control. First acts are garbed in revolutionary logic. Of course this one must be incarcerated or die. And that one. And these people. And those. Then, if we acquire enough power, even the need for revolutionary justification falls away and our actions become simply our actions, our expression of the power we have accrued. Until those around us begin to realize this is no longer the revolution being served, this is something else. This is a monster.

Eventually, like all cycles, it ultimately exhausts itself, if from nothing more than the old age, degeneration and death that eventually befalls the monster, despite the hellish efforts to avoid it. Or, the cycle of purges and killing generates a huge counterbalancing cycle. Others make stopping this monstrous cycle the focus of their lives, as you now are making the revolution the focus of your life. But they have left it too late and it can now take years or even generations. Meanwhile, the suffering that ensues is epic.

So much better to destroy the egg now. But the secret I search for, that I will assuredly go to my grave without finding, is how to transform the egg? How to reprogram its DNA so it comes to recognize that the escape from death that true revolutionaries seek, lies not in meting out widespread death to others, not in demonstrating one’s power over their lives, but in being the birth fathers and birth mothers of a new society, a more just society that future generations laud as having broken with the age-old pattern of repression? Perhaps your generation can solve this ultimate corrupting cycle that wreaks such havoc, and replace it with the virtuous cycle that creates a better world. I would rest more easily in my grave if I somehow heard that you are successful in this.

But whether the monster-making cycle is solvable for all time or not, it is preventable in your revolution. If you understand the presence of the egg, of the signs of its fertilization, of the absolute need to insist it is aborted, or to deny it the power it requires to grow, you can keep it from consuming the work to which you are dedicating your life. We do not have all the answers on how to remove the egg or prevent it from incubating. But I know the non-answer and will share it with you now. The non-answer is to do nothing. To love or fear your revolutionary leader so much that you, the earliest observers of the growth of the egg, do nothing to insist the leader recognize its dangers. This is the non-answer.

Confronting this matter requires great character and courage but you can do it. First, you try everything in your power to get the revolutionary comrade whose egg is hatching to see it, to understand it, to use his sense of higher purpose and his will to discipline the egg, to contain it or starve it so it withers. Simultaneously, you work to establish group mechanisms to distribute power so you can turn down or turn off the tap that is fertilizing the egg in any one of your leaders.

But if you can’t bring the leader whose egg is clearly hatching to recognize what is occurring, to agree to limits that will stop the growth of the egg, then you must oppose the leader. The greatest mistake one can make when you are disgusted with the power grabbing behavior of one faction, is to walk out of the conference or convention and cede power to the incipient monster. You must avoid doing this at all costs. However revulsive the prospect of continuing to work with comrades who are displaying unconscionable behavior, this is the very reason you must not abandon the field to them. I am sorry to say in retrospect, the democratic wing of the party should not have walked out on V.I. It was almost as bad as Gregor Strasser walking out on the National Socialist party and leaving the field to the monster Hitler.

Find the leaders who do not show signs of the egg stirring and put all your effort behind them. They may not be as charismatic and golden tongued, but they can be trusted. Support the leaders who seem to take the power and feed it to others, who use it but do not crave it. Who understand that they serve the people and the people do not serve them.

You must do this if the revolution is to fulfill its destiny and not become another blot on the history of your suffering people. Please take it from me, you must. The stains of history should not become stains on your revolution. Do not assume someone else will take care of this. This may be your most important contribution to the revolution.