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The Chronicle Review: Why Violence Works

Author: Benjamin Ginsberg
August 12, 2013

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"For better or worse, violence usually provides the most definitive answers to three major questions of political life: statehood, territoriality, and power. Violent struggle—war, revolution, terrorism—more than any other immediate factor, determines what nations will exist and their relative power, what territories they occupy, and which groups will exercise power within them."

Humans, and perhaps their prehuman ancestors, have engaged in murder and mayhem, as individuals and in groups, for hundreds of thousands of years. And, at least since the advent of recorded history, violence and politics have been intimately related. Nation-states use violence against internal and external foes. Dissidents engage in violence against states. Competing political forces inflict violence on one another. Writing in 1924, Winston Churchill declared—with good reason—that "the story of the human race is war."

Some writers see violence as an instrument of politics. Thomas Hobbes regarded violence as a rational means to achieve such political goals as territory, safety, and glory. Carl von Clausewitz famously referred to war as the continuation of politics by other means. A second group of writers view violence as a result of political failure and miscalculation. The title of an influential paper on the origins of the American Civil War by the historian James Randall, "The Blundering Generation," expresses that idea. A third group, most recently exemplified by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, regards violence as a pathological behavior that is diminishing in frequency with the onward march of civilization. Some proponents of that perspective have even declared that violence is essentially a public-health problem. Whatever their differences, each of these perspectives assigns violence a subordinate role in political life.

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