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Thoughts on Violence and Democracy

Author(s): Barrington Moore, Jr.

Source: Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, Vol. 29, No. 1, Urban Riots: Violence
and Social Change (1968), pp. 1-12
Published by: Academy of Political Science
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3700902
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Violence and Democracy


The task assignedto me is to presentsome general

observations on thehistoricaland politicalroleof violence,particu-
larlyrevolutionary violence,by wayofa backdrop to thisdiscussion
of the urbancrisis.Violenceis an issue aboutwhichmostpeople
have strongopinions, perhapsevenviolentones.One quitestrongly
heldopinionabouttheconnection betweenviolenceand democracy
holds thatmodernWesterndemocracy is both an improvedsub-
stituteforviolenceand altogether incompatible withany formof
violence.Ballotsare betterthanbullets,so the sayinggoes, and
fortunate is thecountrythathas learnedto substitute freediscus-
sionforviolencefromeither therightortheleft.
As an idealor hopeforthefuture thisis a viewpoint thatI share
withprobablythe overwhelming of
majority my countrymen. As
a description is else
of existingrealityit something again: my in
judgment it is a complacentmisrepresentation ofthepresentand the
A widespread versionof thiscomplacent misrepresentation some-
timeslookslikea theory ofpoliticalpersonality types.In themiddle
of thepoliticalspectrum are thereasonableand pragmatic moderates
whohave evolvedfarenoughto dispensewithideologicaldelusions
and therefore withviolence.But theyare threatened frombothex-
tremes, therightand theleft,by peoplewho are basicallyfanatics,

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who forone reasonor anotherare proneto resortto violenceinstead

of argumentin orderto reachtheirends.
This is a myth that has become harder and harder to believe.
Though the issue is wider than the war in Vietnam,we can see
fromthatwar how themoderates,thepragmatists, theanti-ideologues
have turnedout in practiceto be just as cruel and just as violent
as the worst fanatics.Indeed, this mythnow provides the central
justificationforthe terrifying
violencein whichAmericandemocracy
now engages. This is a violence that the powerfulexerciseagainst
theweak in the name of freedomand order,a time-honored practice
in Westernculture.Here I will mentiononly a few of its most recent
Afterthe Americansystemof freeenterprisehad to some extent
absorbed and neutralizedits white proletariatby grantingthem
some share in the affluentsociety,it began to spawn a new black
proletariatin its urbanheartlands.At about thesame time,freeenter-
prise began to use the most powerfulmilitarymachine in human
historyto crushthe revoltsof dark-skinned people in otherpartsof
the world-not just in Vietnam.These were people who had begun
to throwoffthebonds and burdensof a combinationof pre-industrial
and capitalistformsof exploitation.That these revoltshave been
violent no one need deny. It is equally impossible to deny that
Americanviolence has been used of late mainly on behalf of the
Putting togetherAmerica's actions with America's statementsI
do not thinkit is a caricatureto assertthatthe predominantvoice of
Americaat home and abroad has become the voice of white racism

You mayprotest in wordsas muchas you like.Thereis butone condi-

tion attachedto the freedom we would verymuchlike to encourage:
yourprotests maybe as loud as possibleso long as theyremaininef-
fective.Thoughwe regretyoursufferings verymuchand would like
to do something aboutthem-indeedwe havestudiedthemverycarefully
and have alreadyspokento yourrulersand immediate about
thesematters-anyattempt by you to removeyouroppressors by force
is a threatto civilizedsocietyand thedemocratic
process.Such threats
we cannotand shall not tolerate.As you resortto force,we will, if
needbe,wipeyou fromthefaceof theearthby themeasuredresponse
thatrainsdownflamefromthe skies.

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Fortunatelythepredominant voicehas not been theonlyone in

America. Othershavetriedtomakethemselves heardandhavefound
a response.Whether othervoicescan becomeeffectiveis a question
If thedemocratic ifAmeri-
can policydoes change,thatwillhappendue to combined pressures
fromthreesources:(1) militant who have checked
Americanarms in Vietnam;(2) violentupheavalsin the black
ghettos;and (3) demandsfrombig businessfora strategic retreat.
This prospecthardlysustainsthe views of dogmaticliberalism or
rigidMarxism abouttheworkings ofAmerican society.
If thereis any politicalagreement in the UnitedStatestoday,
it is probablyto theeffect thatsomething is radicallywrong.Part
of what is radicallywrongmay be the prevailingconception of
violence.It failsto drawthecrucialmoraland politicaldistinctions
betweentheviolenceof theoppressors and of thosewho resistop-
pression.By itself, however, this important distinction remains
ratherabstract. We needto inquirewhether theviolenceof theop-
pressedhas madeimportant contributions to humanfredom in the
pastand whether it maycontinue to makesuchcontributions today.
As everyeducatedpersonknows,Westerndemocracy has behind
it a veryviolenthistory.The Revoltof the Netherlands against
Spain,theEnglishCivilWar in theseventeenth century, theAmeri-
can and Frenchrevolutions, and theAmericanCivil War were all
parts of a more or less continuousprocessthatshapedthekindsand
degreesoffreedom underwhichwe nowlive.Eachconflict weakened
or destroyed politicaland socialobstaclesalongtheroutethatended
up capitalist democracy. Therewas nothingabsolutely inevitable
abouttherouteitself.Not all stateshave travelled it; it was itselfa
partof historythatalmostcertainly will not be repeated.The ob-
staclesalongtheroutediffered fromone historical stageto another
and fromone country to another.I will mentionverybriefly only
The AmericanCivil War struckdown plantationslavery,an in-
stitutionthatwas by no means about to die out on its own. It is not
difficultto see the major outlines of what could have happened if
plantationslaveryhad survived.The UnitedStateswould verylikely

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have been in the positionof some modernizing countriestoday:

witha latifundia economy over a a
huge area, powerful and anti-
democratic landedaristocracy, a dependent commercial and industrial
class unwillingand unable to push forwardtoward political
In any strictsenseit is impossible to provethattheviolenceof
revolution and civilwar was necessaryin the creationof Western
capitalistdemocracy. Conceivably thesameresultsmighthave come
aboutsomeotherway. Comparative evidence,nevertheless, under-
linestheimportance of thisviolence.In Germany andJapan,where
therevolutionary impulsewas weak or practically and
the old obstaclespersisted, modernization culminated in fascism.
The factthattodayformerly fascistcountries are doingreasonably
wellas democracies, doesnotin myjudgment undermine thisgener-
al interpretation,becauseWorldWar II and subsequent alliedoccu-
pationconstituted an ersatzrevolution in thesestates.AboutCom-
munist revolutions andmodernization I willhavea fewremarks later.
Behindthe revolutionary thrustin each case we can perceivea
varietyof turbulent emotionalcurrents; upsurgesof angerand de-
spairamong the littlepeople,hopes and visions of a newsocialorder
amongtheorists, and aboveall a strongdoseof sheerpragmatic self-
ishness-thedesireto getas muchas possibleor to lose as littleas
possiblein thecourseoftheturmoil. Thoughthetiming and strength
of each impulsevariesfromcase to case,themoderates who estab-
lishedand consolidated thegainsof a revolution rodeto poweron
thebacksof a wave of anger,despair,and hope.Veryangrymen,
and oftenveryangrywomen,too,did thedirtyworkof destruction
and foundthejustifications fordoingit. Fromthisworkof destruc-
tion,moderates and pragmatists have reapedthemainbenefits.
Basically the same relationship betweenthe moderatesand the
leftextremists has existedwheremajorpoliticaland economicre-
formshave comeaboutpeacefully. In thesesituations, suchas the
greatreform of theEnglishsuffrage in 1832 or evenour own New
Deal, the threatof violenceand some actualviolenceon a minor
scale remainin the background, helpingmainlyto dramatizethe
issues. In the formof politicalblackmailit helps to get the dirty
work done. By makingsome concessionsthe moderatessalvage the
main elementsin theirpower and get the creditfor statesmanship,
at least in themoreconventionalaccounts.Ratherthanan excrescence

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on thedemocratic processor a threatto it, I thinktheradicalleft

mayplay indispensable partin theway it works,whenindeed
it does work.Had it notbeenfortheriotsit is highlyunlikelythat
theproblems of theblackghettowouldhave becomea majorpolit-
icalissue.In generaltheprospect ofa peaceful anddemocratic resolu-
tionof serioussocialconflicts dependsratherheavilyon thecapacity
of the dominantelementsin the societyto make those conces-
sionsthatwill splitoffsegments of thediscontented and breakthe
forceof the radicalopposition.For thoseon top to be willingto
makeconcessions theymustbe in a positionthatis strongenough
so thatconcessions do notconstitute a mortalblowtotheirprivileges.
They must have leaders intelligent enoughto perceivethatsuchis
thecase,giftedpragmatists willingto allow someof theircontem-
porariesto call themtraitors to theirown class and ideals.These
leaders,too,rideto poweron thebackof thewavesof anger,hope,
How thenshouldwe assessthefamiliar thesisthatextremism on
thelefthelpstoundermine thedemocratic centerandpreparetheway
fora take-over by theright?As faras thechronological sequenceof
eventsgoes,therecertainly havebeencases,ofwhichNazi Germany
is thebestknown,wheretheradicallefthas attackedand criticized
a weak democratic regimepriorto a fascistvictorythatcrushed
boththeliberalsand theradicalleft.Butwas theCommunist attack
in Germany, or the left-socialistattackin Italy anything like the
main cause of the fascistvictories? To say thatit was the main
cause comesverycloseto accepting thefascistcoverstorythatfas-
cism was preservingWesterncivilizationfromthe red threat.
This parallelbetweenfascistideas and semi-official liberalideas
aboutextremism is enoughto makeone pauseand think,thoughof
coursetheycouldbothbe correct. Withoutstoopingto acceptthe
Communist clich6abouttheGermanSocialDemocratsas socialfas-
cists,a dispassionateobserver has to takeaccountof thefactthatby
followingwhat theycall moderateand responsible policiesthose
devotedto liberalism may become the hostages, and even agents,
of repressiveand reactionary trends.The GermanSocialDemocrats'
collaborationwiththearmyleadership duringand afterWorldWar
I, their failure to carry out a thoroughgoingdemocratizationof
Germansocietywhen theyfirstcame to power, were decisive steps
on theroad thateventuallyled to theNazi Reich.

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To putthepointmoreforcefully, one shouldask: Justwhatforces

are opposingor undermining democracy? Lately,moderateand
responsible Americanpolicieshave amountedto counter-revolution
abroadand tokensops to thelowerordersat home.For a timeit
seemedas thoughtheformsand trappings of democracy mightre-
mainwhilethe contentmightvanishinto a stifling consensus.In
sucha situationthosewho are "prematurely" critical,who in des-
perationstepbeyond the boundaries of accepted civilizeddiscourse
in whatare oftenadmittedly are likely
futilegestures, to find them-
selvesunderattackforviolatingdemocratic procedures. This situa-
tion is by no meansnew in the historyof Westerndemocracy.
Militantlaborleadersfacedit in Europein thenineteenth century,
and in the UnitedStateslater,as theysoughtto add unionsand
collectivebargainingtotheaccepted forms ofthedemocratic dialogue.
Staunchliberalsfoughtthesemeasuresbitterly on thegroundsthat
theyinfringed uponbasicindividualfreedoms. Militants who strug-
gle now on behalfof Americancitizenswithdarkskinsstillface
thesecharges.In suchcircumstances the real responsibilityforthe
failures andshortcomingsofdemocracy restsuponthosewhosupport
andbenefit fromthepoliciesunderattack,hardlyuponthosewhoare
intemperate andon occasionevenviolentin theirefforts to dramatize
Nevertheless thereare indeedsituationsin whichthe resortto
violenceby the oppressedcan have and has had catastrophic re-
sults.Nothingis further frommyintention thanan attempt to cast
somevagueuniversal cloakof legitimacy upon violence-even upon
violentresistanceto oppression.When violenceresultsin even
greater tragedy,theredoesnotseemto be anything to be said forit.
Stilltherealcriticismamountsto sayingthatit oftenfailsto work,
thatit does not achieveits objective.Rathertentatively I would
suggest thatthisfailureoccursmainly when revolutionary rhetoric
outrunstherealpossibilitiesinherent in a givenhistorical situation.
It is likewisenecessaryto recognizethattheviolenceof oppressed
peopleis usuallydirected againsttheirownmuchmorethanagainst
theiroppressors. Seldomdo thevictimsof a socialorderhave suf-
ficientsocial cohesion and political insight to attack their worst
enemies.Oftensuch an attackis simplytoo dangerous.And forany
given individual theremay seem to be the prospectof a personal
solutionto what is basically a social problem.All these factorsexist

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in a highdegreein theblackghettos.Hencemuchof theviolence

takesthe formof looting,a formof instantintegration
into the

What do thesegeneralconsiderations implyin more concrete
termsaboutAmerican societytoday? Some of theclassicingredients
of a revolutionary upheaval are discernible.Theyincludesomething
resembling whatTrotskycalleda "crisisin theaffairs of theruling
order"-thatis, the beginningsof a split withinthe dominant
classesover majorpolicies-and massiverumblings of discontent
fromthebottomlayersof thepopulation.Otheringredients essen-
tialtosuccessare,on theotherhand,missing.
In themajorinternal conflicts of thepastthreecenturies thesocial
orderhas, to be sure,brokenapartfromthe top downwards, even
thoughpopulargrievances have contributed heavilyto the lines of
fracture. If in thesestruggles competing sectionsof the elitehave
eachmanagedto getcontrolof partsof theinstruments of violence
(themilitary forces and the police),the resulthas been a civilwar.
If,on theotherhand,thesoldiersand thepoliceturnout be un- bo
willingto use forceagainstfellowcitizens, as happened in theFrench
and RussianRevolutions, the consequence has been what we call
a revolution. Neithereventuality appearsto be in thecardsat all in
Americansociety.The overwhelming elementsof coercionseem
likelyto remainfirmly in thehandsof whatourtextbooks call duly
constituted For thisreasonalone,talkaboutrevolution
is in myjudgment puretalkwithpotentially dangerousand tragic
consequences. At thesame timea morelimiteddegreeof violence,
evenin theformof blackriotsdirected at whatwidesectionsof the
whitecommunity regard specificinjustices-forexample,un-
provokedpolicebrutality-could have someeffect in puttingmore
steambehindrespectable oppositionto prevailing injustice.To this
point I willreturn.
If successful revolution is out of the question,whatpossibilities
remain? TentativelyI willsuggesttwo.
The firstI would call the popular solution,because in the short
run it looks the easiest and may be the one that commandsthe
widest popular support.In effectit amounts to more of the same:
intensifyingcounterrevolutionary militaryeffortsoutside America,

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and increasing repressive measuresagainstthe blackminority and

other dissidentelementsinside America. Domestic repression
mighthaveto increaserathersharplyas fundsforsopsto theunder-
privileged becomeharderto comeby. Ultimately thisline of policy
requiresputting American society on a full-scalewar footing. There
are groupsin Americafarmorepowerful thandissident intellectuals,
students, and militant Afro-Americans thatarelikelyto sensewhere
thiscourseis leadingand to resistit. Influential businesscirclesare
alreadyuneasyabout the prospectsof permanently highertaxes,
stiffcontrols,inflation,threats to financial stability and international
trade,and domestic chaos.Thereare also signsof increasing opposi-
tionwithinprofessional military circles.AlthoughtheVietcongand
the NorthVietnamese may not be able to demonstrate thatwars
of nationalliberation can succeedaccording to theirown conception
of success,theyhave just aboutdemonstrated thataffluent capital-
ismcannotafford to suppressthemand stillremainaffluent capital-
ism.We preferto be killedby automobiles ratherthanby Asians.
Thissetofreasonsgivesgroundsforholdingthatalthough thepopu-
lar and easy solutionof increasedrepression remainsa realdanger,
itprobably doesnotrepresent themaindrift ofaffairs.
The existence of thesecurrents of opposition in influentialsectors
ofAmerican societymay also furnish the basis for a conservative solu-
tion.This wouldamountto reducing or evenliquidating thewarin
Vietnamto pourresources intoprograms of urbanreconstruction. I
call thispolicyconservative becauseit aimsto conserveas muchas
possible ofAmerica's present framework, to avoidradicalinstitution-
al changes.Indeedone of themaindangersin theconservative solu-
tionmaybe carryover of thesametechnocratic mentality from the
war intourbanproblems. In Vietnam,Americanpoliticaland mili-
tary leaders thought theycould maketheproblem ofpeasantrevolu-
tionariesdisappearwithbombs,bulldozers, and bribesin theform
of economicdevelopment grantsforgoodbehavior.In dealingwith
theblackghettos at hometheymaytryto sendin thebulldozers and
thecementmixersto raze and pacifytheslums.If thatis all there
is tothepolicy,itwillnotbe conservative.
' Indeed that is the heartof the problem.Can a conservativesolu-
tion work and still be conservative?If one definesconservativeas
remainingwithinthe traditionsof freeenterprise, I thinkthe answer
is quite clearlyno. I doubtthatprivateenterprisecan come anywhere

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nearproviding enoughjobs to createself-respect and socialstability

in theblackghettos. That,however, would be a verynarrowandun-
realisticdefinition of conservative. If by freeenterprise one means
an economicand socialsystembasedon privateproperty thatregu-
lates itselfmainlythroughthe market,that particularhistorical
specieshas notexistedforat leasttwogenerations, or sincethecrash
of 1929, if indeed it existedbeforethen. Hence it is not altogether
unreasonable to supposethathugesubsidiesto theblackand white
slumsin the formof guaranteedminimalincomes,housing,and
government-created jobs mightkeeptheAmericansystemgoingin
a fashionthatproducedsomerecognizable facsimile to whatexists
now.Taxingourselvesveryheavilyto supportan outright subsidy,
transferring oursurplusfrommilitary and destructive uses thathave
by and largesustainedtheexistingsystemof privileges to uses that
in manyways challengedeeplyrootedhabitsand ideas,wouldbe
enormously difficult.Therewould certainly be massiveresistance
and resentment fromthemiddlelayersof thepopulation. Thereis
littlereasonto be sanguinethatthepolicywillwork.An acceptable
policy-one thatdoes achievesocial stability-wouldcertainly fall
very farshort of any ideal of using our vast material to
power eli-
minateunnecessary humansuffering and cruelty. The bestthatone
can say fora conservative solution, and thatis quitea bit,is thatthe
costsin humansuffering wouldbe farless thana continuation of
Henceboththepopularand theconservative solutionsare liable
to encounter severedifficulties and costs,someforeseeable and some
unforeseeable. If thisanalysisis nearthemark,we may expectto
see someuneasyoscillation betweenthesetwo typeswiththepen-
dulumswingingtowardthe conservative one. The next election,
thoughcertainly not a trivial matter, is unlikelyto be thedecisive
eventit is supposedto be according to democratic theory.Mainlyit
willdetermine whichsetof politicians do theoscillating.Alreadyas
theselinesare beingwritten, at theend of March,one can see that
all candidatesforthepresidency including theincumbent have be-
gun experiment with some variant of the conservative solution.

The skepticismI have expressedabout the posible solutions for
Americansocietyimpliesan obligationto make at least a few brief

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commentson Communism,the outcomeof twentieth-century revolu-

tions-just as capitalistdemocracywas the outcomeof earlierrevo-
lutions.Let me say firstthat skepticismis not, or ratherought not
to be, a set of spectaclesto set on one's nose when looking at one's
own societyand stuffedback in a pocketwhen looking at another
society-or vice versa. Communismcertainlyreveals the crueltyof
victoriousrevolutionaries, even thoughthereare decisivedifferences
on this score betweenRussia and China. The most thatI thinkit is
possibleto say in defenseof socialismas it now existsis thatthrough
the centralcontrolof the economyit has createdthe possibilityof
using modernscience and technologyfor constructiveand humane
purposes,a possibilitythatprivatepropertyin the means of produc-
tionmay denyto capitalism.Even thisclaimhas begun to seem more
doubtfulas the Russians encounterdifficulties operatingtheirclumsy
bureaucracy at theirlevel of affluence.Furthermore,the categories
of capitalism,socialism,and democracy,bequeathedto us fromthe
nineteenthcentury,are graduallybecominginadequate for compre-
hending contemporaryissues as new lines of political cleavage
Among theselines of cleavage is the one betweenstatesthathave
industrializedand those that have not, which, with the important
exceptionof theJapanese,happensto coincidewiththecolorline and
give racial overtonesto the worldwide strugglebetween rich and
poor. Anotherline has come to cut across familiarboundaries,that
between the establishedorder,be it capitalistor Communist,and
radical students,intellectuals,and othermarginalsocial groups.The
demandsof thenew militantoppositionon both sides of a corroding
iron curtainshare themesthatmay eventuallybecomepartof a new
redefinition of thepast, thepresent,and the future,a new conception
of foe and friend.Some of the themeshave a veryold-fashioned,al-
most Whiggishring: resistanceto tyrannyand oppressionin all its
forms; suspicionof establishedauthorityand bureaucracy;outrage
at cruelty;the demand for due process against arbitraryinjustice;
freedomof speechand artisticcreation;and individualautonomy.
Whether this common currentof militantopposition will ever
win out is a question no one can answer. However, in closing
I would like to offersome even more speculativeand more general
observationson human historythat provide some faint grounds

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To begin with a pessimisticobservation,it is untruethatviolence

settlesnothing.It would be closerto the markto assertthatviolence
has settledall historicalissues so far,and mostof themin thewrong
way. The violenceof the oppressorhas generallybeen far more ef-
fectivethan the violence of the weak and oppressed.By and large,
the violenceof thepowerfulhas been thatof organizedsocietyitself
and has servedone generalpurpose: it has been part of the methods
by which the dominantclasses have extractedan economicsurplus
fromthe lower ordersand transmutedthis surplusinto culture.This
formof violence is the oldest and most persistent.Revolutionary
violence,the deliberateuse of lower-classresentments and hatredsto
bring about qualitative changes in the political and social order,
seems to be a relativelyrecentEuropeanmutation,perhapsno older
than the FrenchRevolution.As a methodof social adaptationboth
formsof violenceare of coursehorriblycruel,horriblywasteful,and
among the main reasons why all human societiesto date have had
stronglyoppressivefeatures.By now, however,the advance of tech-
nology has renderedone of the main reasons historicallyobsolete.
There is no longer the kind of social "necessity"that once existed
forusing politicaland economiclevers to forcethe lower ordersto
createan economicsurplusby the sweat of theirbrows and turnit
over to the dominantelementsin society.Machines can do the job.
We can see this difference in the role the black ghettosplay in
Americansocietynow. Unlike the black slaves on the cottonplanta-
tions,the presentinhabitantsof the black slums do not toil to create
a surplusforthe dominantwhites.Nor does it make much sense to
call thempart of a reservearmyof labor thatkeeps down wages in
general and makes profitspossible. They do not do capitalismany
good. Capitalismwould in factbe betteroffturningthesepeople into
customers.The price in transferpaymentsmightbe only a fraction
of what goes into the cost of our militaryestablishment.I suspect
that the same is true in regard to Americaneffortsto hold down
"the wretchedof the earth"in the restof the world; thateven from
the standpointof preservingtheir own interestsAmericanleaders
have so far chosen the most expensive,most cruel,and most futile
methods.In regard to socialist states too, whose repressionshave,
unlike those of capitalism,been mainlydirectedat theirown popu-
lations,the main justification disappearsas soon as theyhave indus-
trialized.On this score thereis some degreeof convergence.

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12 1 URBAN

Somedistantday,therefore, does notin themean-

if civilization
timerenderourplanetunfitforhumanhabitation, menmayactually
hituponways of settlingtheirdifferences withoutfightingand of
organizingsocietywithminimalviolence.This prospectis on the
remoteto justify towardsit:
onlyone attitude


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