Dustin Ells Howes. Freedom without Violence: Resisting the Western Political Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 288 pp. $36.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-933700-2.
Reviewed by Connor Gahre (Miami University of Ohio)
Published on H-FedHist (February, 2018)
Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann (Miami University of Ohio Regionals)
Citizens and states hold the concept of freedom as one of the loftiest ideals for human society. But what does this freedom entail and should it be violently defended at all costs? This is the question posited by Dustin Ells Howes in his book Freedom without Violence. This simple quandary haunts the reader throughout the book. For Howes, Western conceptions of freedom improperly condone violence as a necessary component of political liberation. The dark underpinnings of this political thought should instead be turned to the ideals of Gandhi’s swaraj, or “self-rule,” as a new political basis. While Howes does not present his argument in the most convincing manner, his scholarship on violence in human nature is invaluable to the fields of political science and history.
The first part of the book is dedicated to revolutions, both violent and nonviolent. Howes’s preliminary goal is to connect the Age of Revolutions to subsequent revolutions through the notion of liberation by means of violence. He does this by connecting all modern revolutions to an ideological basis grounded in the philosophies of Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes. Machiavelli is chief among the patron saints of violence in politics, and many subsequent thinkers adopted these violent means for their own ends. The American and French Revolutions were the first among these examples. The story of the French Revolution and the following Terror in the name of freedom is well told, as widespread use of the guillotine laid bare the violent undertones of liberation. Although Howes insists that the American Revolution was far more “civil,” he refers to Thomas Jefferson’s remark that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” which echoes Machiavellian principles (quoted, p. 18).
After the Age of Revolutions, Howes connects other revolutions to Machiavellian principles of violent “freedoms,” particularly Joseph Stalin’s police state and Leon Trotsky’s permanent revolution. Finally, Howes examines Franz Fanon’s take on anticolonial struggles for liberation, arguing that these movements lead to their own brand of violent terror and repression that originate in the earlier principles of violent revolution.
The first section culminates in an analysis that contrasts these violent revolutions with nonviolent examples that similarly lead to liberation. He convincingly shows that nonviolent resistance made the Roman Republic powerful and strong while providing the plebeians with more freedoms. Similarly, the abolitionists of the nineteenth century are posited as nonviolent resisters who eventually accomplished their goals. He further points toward the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of apartheid, Chilean resistance to Augusto Pinochet, the 2004 Ukrainian revolution, and Tunisia and Egypt in the Arab Spring as victories for nonviolent resistance.
While the first part historicizes, the second part evaluates the West’s glorification of violent freedom to facilitate and open a pathway to the consideration of freedom through Gandhi’s swaraj. Howes returns to a study of Machiavelli’s The Prince and asserts that Thomas Hobbes’s ideas built upon Machiavelli’s principles. The first to outline a system of natural rights, Hobbes believed that violence is the core of human existence, and even harsh and violent government was preferable to the brutal state of nature. John Locke, the philosophical forefather of the American Revolution, modified Hobbesian thought and elaborated on these ideals by asserting that violence in defense of freedom and property was acceptable. Unlike Hobbes, Locke connected liberty to life; thus freedom becomes a natural right that must be defended in the social contract by any means necessary. From Locke’s philosophy comes the second amendment to the Constitution, the most explicit form of liberty’s connection to violence. This section invalidates the Enlightenment ideal of freedom without violence. Enlightenment philosophy is tacitly connected to Machiavelli, a defender of violence in the pursuit of freedom and security. By relating Enlightenment regimes to Machiavelli, Howes illustrates that these beneficent ends of freedom are subject to the whims of violence.
In a backward chronological shift, Howes turns to ancient philosophies, in particular Thucydides and Aristotle, in order to address philosophies that predate Machiavelli’s violent means. This section on the Greek thinkers forms the crux of Howes book. While all modern philosophy is traced back to the violence of Machiavelli, the criticism of ancient Greek philosophy would invalidate a return to classical conceptions of freedom. In the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides records a speech of Pericles that glorified the city of Athens. In this oration, Pericles praised the democratic city and its superior skills in war and culture. This statement by Pericles of a unique Athenian culture leads Howes to brand this rhetoric as an endorsement of a particular brand of courage and martial prowess. This peculiar martial prowess is the connection of the ancient ethos to violence in defense of liberation. Based off this conception, the great thinker of ancient Greece, Aristotle, must be connected to the Periclean ethos in order to invalidate a return to the ancient Greeks’ political science for the answer to liberation without violence. Howes thus argues that Aristotle is directly related to Periclean ethos by explicating that Aristotle’s Politics is wholly in consonance with the Periclean ideal. Aristotle’s outline of “the best city” upholds the Periclean ideal of politics and rule over others and defends the hierarchy of a city in the achievement of freedom. With a return to the ancients rendered void, Howes can open a new way of thinking toward a free society without violence.
Finally, Howes discounts Immanuel Kant and Isaiah Berlin’s ideological belief in nonviolence as a useful pathway to freedom. Howes concedes that Kant connects violence to radical evil, but Kant’s obstinate support of violence as a moral duty in certain cases undermines nonviolent action. Isaiah Berlin famously outlined an idea of liberalism based on the distinction between positive and negative rights, yet he focuses more on the individual, which engenders an atrophy of the public sphere. The discrediting of these two thinkers leads the way for the insertion of swaraj, Gandhi’s ideal for a nonviolent society.
In order to legitimate swaraj, Howes radically modifies the definition of freedom. Gandhi’s ideal of freedom dismisses the need for autonomous action, instead claiming that anyone can act freely even under an oppressive government: “If the British stayed but the Indians became aware of and exercised their capacities, they would be free” (p. 159). This redefinition of freedom loosens the connection of violence to the concept. Instead, freedom emerges from the principles of community or the collective, not individual liberty. Gandhi realized that Western thought often confused liberty with license, but true freedom incorporated moderation and duty, making it a moral principle. Swaraj idealizes a communitarian existence of people ruling and moderating themselves, without the intervention of a sovereign government. Additionally, it depreciates logic in favor of emotion and compassion. By emphasizing duty over individualism, Howes provides a blueprint for an alternative to Western political freedom.
Howes’s explanation of these philosophical schools provides powerful insight into notions of freedom, but problems persist in his analysis, specifically his conceptualization of freedom and his utopian construction of human nature. Lost in Howes’s conversation of freedom is how one secures and maintains swaraj, say in the face of Nazism. Instead of reframing freedom, it seems a society could simply aim toward a different way of human existence. To radically modify the definition of freedom is not to preserve freedom without violence, but rather to abandon freedom in the hopes that individuals will act out of collective duty.
Howes’s repudiation of other theorists in pursuit of utopian schemes also unjustly simplifies the complexities of human existence. Thinkers such as Franz Fanon, Aristotle, Hobbes, and Machiavelli all had reasons for dismissing nonviolence as an approach to political rule. Fanon endorses violence due to colonial regimes’ dehumanizing effect and distortion of reality in the minds of the colonized. Without violence directed at the colonial regime, the colonized can never achieve freedom. Aristotle supported violence in a concession to human nature that has men believe that they can change regimes for the better. Machiavelli endorsed military prowess in a prince as a compromise to creating a prosperous state. Political ideals are always open to the complexities of human nature, and an unwavering belief in the good will of the human race in order to create a community of self-restrained saints is no less than utopian.
While Howes’s conceptions of nonviolent freedom are tenuous, he remains firm to Gandhi’s ideal for nonviolent rule. This is partially due to the genuine lack of substantial nonviolent occurrences in world history. The narrative of the abolitionists is the most distressing in Howes’s argumentation. The abolitionists cause was made complete by the American Civil War, not nonviolent resistance by abolitionists. In the example of South African apartheid, Nelson Mandela went to jail for nonviolent resistance, but the Eastern Cape became marked by instances of necklacing as a method of resistance. Even in instances where no radical violence occurred, the threat of violence was ever-present, thus exposing the utopian character of swaraj. While a world and a politics without even the mere threat of violence may be intoxicating to many, there is a reason that freedom has often been accompanied by violence. Howes’s attempt to disconnect violence from freedom is meaningful and important. However, the concessions swaraj requires becomes too costly for human life and happiness.
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Connor Gahre. Review of Howes, Dustin Ells, Freedom without Violence: Resisting the Western Political Tradition.
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