I had reduced everything to the simple theory that the oppressed are always right and the oppressors are always wrong: a mistaken theory, but the natural result of being one of the oppressors yourself.

George Orwell

Majority rule is the hardest question in democratic theory. There are certainly good arguments to be made for allowing the people to rule—if only the people had some collective identity or general will and did not always demand to be counted! What can possibly be said for allowing 51 per cent of the people to rule? Mostly we fall back on a practical argument, morally rooted in the idea of a political community, a single unified order which is temporarily represented or activated, in lieu of anything better, by a majority of its members. Thus John Locke: civil society is one body; one body can only move in one direction; so it must move “whither the greater force carries it.” The greater force is, however, not always the force of numbers. Political bodies can be moved, and generally are, by relatively small numbers of men who possess wealth, offices, inherited status, or a monopoly on the means of violence. The defense of majority rule requires something more: a theory of equality stipulating that every man ought to have and must be provided with the same political force as every other man. Then the “greater force” can only be discovered by counting heads.

There are, then, two moral reasons for a minority to yield to majority rule. First, because it too is a part of the community and acknowledges the unity of the state; second, because it too has been counted. And, there is an overriding practical reason: there must be some decision; the state must act; there is no option; and how else but by “greater force”? If we assume further that the adding up of individual wills takes place at the end of a political process during which all citizens are equally free to make arguments, we can add another moral and another practical reason for minority obedience. By participating in the process, knowing in advance its regular course and the possibility of an adverse outcome, individuals agree to the legitimacy (though not to the Tightness) of the eventual decision. If they lose out, they defer to the majority, hoping that one day they will not lose out and will be deferred to in turn. The only alternative is war, but by joining the argument they have committed themselves to politics, and politics, given their minority position, remains their safest choice. Hence, even if they are outraged by the majority decision and feel morally bound to disobey, they will choose, if they are wise, to disobey in political ways, which do not call into question the survival of the democratic system.

This describes an ideal case, however, and its three crucial assumptions are rarely realized in practice. So we must ask, what is the status of majority rule if 1) the unity of the state is not universally acknowledged; 2) all citizens are not, in fact, politically equal; and 3) the political process is not absolutely open and free? The question can be put more directly: what if there exists a minority group which either is or regards itself as separate from the political community and whose members are or feel themselves to be oppressed? Obviously there are such groups in more than one modern democratic state. Sometimes their members occupy a single piece of territory within the larger community, and then their politics is likely to take separatist or secessionist forms. They will not challenge majority rule so much as the political integrity of the state within which a particular majority rules. They claim the right to be a majority in their own state. I am inclined to concede this right, though somtimes there are other claims to be considered. It is not difficult to imagine a situation in which a right (of the minority) to secede or attempt secession coexists with an obligation (of the majority) to defend the original union. In many cases, however, and these are the ones I want to discuss, the minority is geographically dispersed. Then the issue is not the integrity of the union, but the legitimacy of majority rule. What are the obligations of an oppressed minority in a state where only the members of the majority are entirely free and equal? That is not a question that can be answered until something more is said about the nature of the oppression, but for the moment let it stand as this: members of the minority, for whatever reason, do not “count” in the same way as everyone else.

The case is not difficult where they do not count at all. Then the oppressed persons simply have no political obligations, or, rather, no obligations to the state. Slaves owe nothing to their masters and nothing again to the ruling committee of their masters. Nor do the relative numbers of slaves and masters make any difference, except in the strategic considerations of the two groups. Cases where the oppressed are recognized as citizens are much harder. Their votes are honestly counted, let us assume, but as it turns out they never win. They are free to organize, but they face a thousand petty difficulties and their attempts to sustain large-scale organizations regularly fail. Patterns of social and economic discrimination reinforce their minority political status (and their political weakness reinforces the social and economic patterns—it hardly matters which way the causal connections are worked). The pressure they can bring to bear within the political system is limited. Their day-to-day lives offer them little hope. They are trapped in a moral and political ghetto—in a country that is still in some serious sense open and democratic. Obviously the situation I am sketching is something like that of American black people, though the sketch is formal in character and hardly suggests their long years of humiliation and outrage. It also ignores the problems of elite domination in the modern state. I am simply assuming what many blacks believe, and what seems plausible: that they confront a unified, though not a monolithic, white majority, that they are the victims of popular oppression. What obligations can they possibly be said to owe to the (more or less) democratic state?

On this issue, liberal and democratic theorists have had very little to say, but what they have said is clear enough and, it must be admitted, very radical. They have argued, in effect, that oppressed minorities have no obligations at all within the political system. “And where the body of the people, or any single man,” writes Locke, “is deprived of their right . . . there they have liberty to appeal to heaven [that is, to rebel, to make war against the government], whenever they judge the cause of sufficient moment.”1 Of course, Locke’s conception of “right” did not explicitly include a right of political participation. That is a later extension, but it is one that would today be difficult to deny. For oppression can never be limited to the political sphere: it endangers a man’s “life, liberty, and property” as soon as it diminishes his political force, and so it cuts away his (Lockeian) reasons for consenting to government and obeying the law. The seriousness of Locke’s commitment to consent theory is best revealed by the last phrase in the passage I have quoted: the crucial judgment about oppression must be made by the “oppressed” themselves. Feeling oppressed, then, yields the same “liberty to appeal to heaven” as being oppressed. Rousseau, in A Discourse on Political Economy, characteristically suggests a more objective judgment, but the essential point is the same. The social contract “would in point of right be dissolved” if a single citizen were treated wrongly. The victims of injustice are released from every social bond; they are free in society, or they are free out of it, for they can never rightly be oppressed.

It might be argued that Rousseau did not really believe this, since he defends the legitimacy of states, like that of ancient Rome, where more than one citizen, indeed, many more than one, were treated wrongly. I am going to do the same thing, though with less resolution, since it is difficult to regard the United States today with anything like the admiration Rousseau felt for the Roman Republic. But I want first to grant the moral force of the argument: where justice is not done, there is no legitimate state and no obligation to obey. I also want to deny the force of the easiest response: that all human creations, and states especially, are imperfect, hence to be endured as long as possible. This is no response at all, for, if it condones anything, it condones equally the imperfect justice of the government and the imperfect obedience of its subjects. If oppression is to be accepted as an inevitable feature of the political condition, then why not violent rebellion? Isn’t the arrogance of the oppressor a far greater human imperfection—to say the least—than the rage of the oppressed?



When oppressed men exercise their “liberty” and act out their rage, they do so in relation to two social groups, and therefore the extent and limits of that liberty must be twice specified, each time in a different way. They act first with or on behalf of the group that they themselves constitute and (sometimes) bring to self-consciousness by their action. Not their rights as individuals but their connection to the mass of the oppressed is their reference point in explaining to themselves and to each other what they can and cannot do. They act secondly within the larger community and against their oppressors. Here the democratic state and their own ambiguous citizenship is the reference point of their arguments and justifications. Both these references can best be explicated, I think, by looking closely at all that is implied by words like “on behalf of” and “within,” and this is what I shall try to do in the rest of the essay. My discussion will necessarily ignore much else that ought to be taken into account; I shall have to justify its emphases as I go along. There are few guidelines, for political philosophers have not dwelt upon the moral life of the oppressed.

I have already suggested that oppressed individuals rarely experience their oppression as individuals. Their suffering is shared, and they come to know one another in a special way. They have an understanding among themselves—by no means founded on mutual admiration—which no one outside the circle of oppression can readily share and which no one inside the circle can easily escape. From this understanding obligations follow, their content determined by the specific interactions of the oppressed, their force determined by the intensity of those interactions and their almost suffocating closeness. It is the fate of the oppressed that the whole of their moral lives be mediated by their common situation.2 For this reason, something must be said about the obligations they owe to one another before anything can usefully be said of their “liberty” within the state.

I cannot specify the procedures through which patterns of recognition and solidarity or definitions of loyalty and betrayal are worked out. The procedures are informal; it is not the case that they are constituted by a succession of voluntary acts, any more than the group of the oppressed is constituted by a series of individual contracts. Members of the group do form voluntary associations, at least partly to make the patterns and definitions as precise as possible and to enforce them. And they form different associations because they disagree as soon as they try to be precise. Yet there is a sense in which the possibility of acting faithfully and the possibility of breaking trust pre-exist all voluntary acts. This is part of what it means to be oppressed, and it suggests the two ways in which oppression marks the limit of the consensual universe. “It is the anti-Semite who makes the Jew,” writes Sartre, and that means, first, that the Jew does not make himself and, second, that he must make himself an (authentic) Jew. The same thing is true of the black man: he did not choose blackness; now he must choose blackness.

These are not conventional or easy moral assertions, perhaps they are not moral assertions at all, though Sartre’s insistence that inauthenticity is never “morally blameworthy” is belied by the tone in which he writes about it. One ought never agree too quickly to match the coercion of the oppressor (all black men must defer) with the coercion of the oppressed (all black men must resist). Individuals do escape, or at least they seem (sometimes to themselves, sometimes only to the others) to escape. They pass or assimilate, or they hide. They choose to be inauthentic Jews or blacks. Such men are surely not traitors, not in any literal sense of that word. But they are not quite faithful either. They have moved into a world of deceit and self-deceit, where trust and mutuality are lost ideals.

Obligations in the strict sense are established when the more active members of oppressed groups form organizations for mutual defense or political struggle. The precise content of these obligations, the political or social creed to which the activists commit themselves, the relative intensity of the commitment—all this has to be negotiated and is negotiated with very different results in different organizations. There is no single correct result that I or anyone else can stipulate. Nevertheless, I do think that certain general things can be said about the obligations of activists, given the claim they commonly make: to speak or act on behalf of oppressed men and women.3 It is important to try to do this, since the activists are rarely authorized to speak or act on behalf of anyone (I do not mean that they have no right to do so) nor is it easy for the mass of the oppressed to repudiate them because of what they say or do. A certain responsibility to the mass is sometimes enforced within particular organizations of activists or, more often, through competition among different organizations. Whenever this enforcement is attempted, arguments are made about political obligation, arguments that focus, consciously or not, on the problem of the unauthorized agent. It is easy to be outraged at the plight of others, especially easy, perhaps, for a man who shares or has shared that plight, but it is not easy to act for them when they are unable to act for themselves. Many men claim to do so; other men question their good faith. Despite endless variations in theory and rhetoric, these arguments have a recurrent form. We encounter them often in the history of the Left: action on behalf of others is the Left’s version of virtual representation and shares the same difficulties and dangers. I want to examine these, first with occasional reference to their classic exposition in the work of Marx and Trotsky, then with specific reference to an example drawn from the recent history of black militancy.



The basic principle of arguments about responsibility is simply that the activists, when they commit themselves to work on behalf of the oppressed, also commit themselves to work as effectively as they can and actually to help the oppressed whenever they can. But what does it mean to work “effectively” or “actually to help” the oppressed? Who shall judge the effects or the helpfulness? I should think that the immediate goals of the activists must be set by the general consciousness of the oppressed group rather than by their own ideology. The effects can only be judged by those who will feel them. “Helping” someone usually means doing something for him that he regards or seems likely to regard (given his present state of mind) as helpful. There are exceptions to this rule, but each exception requires justification; it usually requires some plausible claim to special knowledge on the part of the active persons—such as a doctor or a lawyer might make. But this is an especially implausible claim for political activists to make, so long as they wish to maintain that they are struggling for equality. Not that they must acquiesce in the established forms of deference and passivity; then they would not be activists at all. They may and they often should seek “to raise the level of consciousness” among the oppressed through various sorts of educational and political work, even, sometimes, by setting an example of boldness and militancy. But they win the “liberty” that oppression confers only if they respond to the felt needs of their putative constituents and represent these to the larger community. Otherwise they are not acting for the oppressed at all, but for themselves (not necessarily in their own interests, perhaps for the sake of their own ideals). Then the moral rules relevant to their activity are not those we derive from the situation of oppressed minorities, but rather those we derive from the experience of sect life in a democratic society. Sectarian activists, in contrast to the oppressed groups from which they sometimes come, are likely to be both free and equal, even to be counted in ways that exaggerate their numbers.



One might even suggest that sectarian activists often stand to the oppressed group in rather the same relation as does the oppressor government, even though they are without the same power. They are a competing elite; they make similar claims to esoteric knowledge; they replace the general struggle for freedom and equality with their own struggle for recognition and power. This replacement can take different forms depending on the ideology that rationalizes it, and though it is often self-serving, I do not want to sugggest that it is always that or merely that. Nor is the pride a man may take in having worked his way through to a coherent ideological position necessarily a false pride. But there is a great difference in the moral position of a would-be leader who finds his warrant for action in his ideology alone and one who finds his warrant in the fact that he can give his ideology currency among the oppressed themselves. Only the second is a leader of the oppressed, defining their interests in terms they, or many of them, can and do accept. But it might be argued that the first man, given his ideology and assuming his good faith, is nevertheless bound to act as he does, for how else can he honestly help the oppressed? Perhaps this is so, but to whom is he bound? Not to the oppressed men and women whose consciousness he rejects: surely he takes their name in vain. Then he is bound only to himself, if that is possible, and to the small band of militants who share his commitments. And the militancy of such a group, whose members necessarily act on their own behalf whatever else they do or think they are doing, easily degenerates into one or another kind of elitist conspiracy. Marx’s description of the relation of Blanquist sectarians to the working class points to just such a degeneration:

These conspirateurs do not limit themselves to the mere task of organizing the proletariat; not at all. Their business lies precisely in trying to pre-empt the developing revolutionary process, drive it artificially to crisis. . . . For them, the only necessary condition for a revolution is an adequate organization of their conspiracy. . . . Hence their deepest disdain for the more theoretical enlightenment of the workers about their class interests.4

Marx is not making a moral but rather a tactical argument here—or so he would say—and his hatred for the conspirateurs hangs on his conviction that there is a revolutionary process. If such a process cannot be, or if it is not discerned, or if it proceeds or seems to proceed at too slow a pace to offer any hope for those who are oppressed now, then there may well be arguments for creating a crisis artificially or hastening a crisis that seems likely to come only in the distant future. What this means is that the activists put themselves into some radically exposed position (they seize a building, begin an armed struggle, and so on), expecting a repressive response from the state, and calling on the mass of the oppressed to come to their rescue. Indeed, they may try to force people to come to their rescue by choosing a course of action that endangers not only themselves but everyone else on whose behalf they claim to be acting. If this strategy works, if support is forthcoming, and if major concessions are won, the activists will be called heroes. Yet there is a kind of self-sufficiency, an ability to take risks for oneself alone, implied by the classic idea of the hero, that they seem to lack. Perhaps the real heroes are the men who come to their rescue. In any case, the action can be successful only if they do come, and that means it should be undertaken only if they can be expected to come. Hence “the mere task of organizing” the oppressed must precede the adventures of the activists. And that task, if it is carried forward with energy and seriousness, is very likely to begin a political process, a long revolution, to which contrived crises are superfluous. There will be crises enough in the normal course of things. The whole of the long revolution is a collective adventure, which will have its resonances in the lives of many men and women, but which no small group can rightly claim for itself. Thus Trotsky’s argument against terrorism, a personal adventure generally undertaken, or so it is said, on behalf of others: “To the terrorist we say . . . only in the mass movement can you find expedient expression for your heroism.”



It is never possible to know in advance the course of the mass movement or the historic shape of the long revolution. The easiest visual image is one of gradual linear advance, but that image is often deceptive or deceitfully employed. I do not mean to commit the activists to an incremental politics. If they are “actually to help the oppressed whenever they can,” however, they have no right to reject any possible improvements in their condition. The argument is sometimes made that all such improvements, short of full liberation, reduce the incentives for further struggle. Men can be partially satisfied, it is said, often at no significant sacrifice by the ruling majority or the established elite, and then the oppression is stabilized, at least for a time, and the activists effectively isolated from their base. Whatever its historical plausibility—the evidence is not easy to assemble or weigh—this argument suggests what seem to me morally impermissible risks. It suggests that the activists give up present and certain gains for the oppressed in the name of a future and impalpable triumph—and a triumph, most likely, in which only they entirely believe. It amounts to saying what has in fact been said more than once in the recent past: the worse, the better. These words probably have to be read: the worse for the mass of the oppressed, the better for the activists. I should add, the better for the activity of the activists, for the risks they themselves run may also be heightened. (Once again, I am not suggesting that their politics is necessarily self-serving.) Even put that way, the maxim may well be false. Its possible falseness is less important, however, than the fact that the choice it implies will never be made by the men certain to be most affected by it. So it can never rightly be made in their name.

Actual improvement in the condition of the oppressed is most likely in the special circumstances I am considering, that is, when the larger community is at least formally democratic and when real possibilities exist for open organizational and agitational activity. This is a proposition often disputed, especially in periods of political failure and frustration, but I do not think there are many, even among the activists, who would choose to work underground and live in hiding if they had alternatives. It is important, of course, not to exaggerate the value of democratic rules (as distinct from democratic practice): the mere existence of an oppressed minority suggests forcefully that the rules are being worked, twisted, and manipulated, often brutally so, in the interests of the majority or of its leaders. But that only means, I think, that men acting in the name of the minority ought to insist upon the real meaning of the rules and upon the practices that follow from them.

Given the formalities of citizenship and suffrage, oppression is enforced in large part by the incapacities of the oppressed themselves—their economic helplessness, lack of education, inarticulateness, self-hate, and, above all, their political dispersion, disunity, incompetence, and isolation—incapacities at which the whole society more or less openly conspires and which can only be overcome through equally open political struggle. If this struggle is actually being fought on behalf of the oppressed, it must eventually broaden to include them. This is one of the oldest maxims of the Left: “the liberation of the workers can come only through the workers themselves.” The same thing can be said about minority groups, though the word “only” is more ambiguous in their case. Thus, it remains a crucial test of all those who claim to work for the oppressed that the action they choose activates as well as benefits other men and women and that it does nothing to lower their faith (low enough already) in the possibility of their own democratic participation. Conspiracy and terrorism never, I think, meet this test; they are the politics, as esoteric ideology is the consciousness, of a competing elite. “Bureaucratism has no confidence in the masses and endeavors to substitute itself for the masses,” wrote Trotsky. “Terrorism [functions] in the same manner; it wants to make the masses happy without asking their participation.” Oppressed minorities do not find participation easy; that is why the activists must act on their behalf; but in more or less democratic conditions it is a great deal easier to “ask” their participation, to seek it, to work for it. And that means (though Trotsky at this point might not agree) that anyone who really hopes to initiate a liberating politics must exploit the democratic hypocrisy of the majority, conniving at every chance the laws allow for public agitation and large-scale action and breaking the law, whenever necessary, only to increase the chances.

I have used the words “ought” and “should” in the preceding paragraphs because I believe I have been elucidating the moral commitment implied by the phrase “acting on behalf of the oppressed.” I have not been exploring questions of tactics, or not these alone. The principles I have put forward are not, nor are they intended to be, tactically specific. That activists must pay attention to and be guided by the consciousness of the oppressed, even if they hope to change that consciousness; that they must not despise concrete improvements in the condition of the oppressed, even if such improvements make their own work harder; that they must act so as to open up, or to keep open, the possibilities of democratic action: these seem to me moral injunctions. They follow from commitments that political activists make and reiterate in the course of their struggles. Perhaps I should say that they generally make, for it is at least possible to imagine a vanguard of militants that acted explicitly on its own behalf and whose members were entirely honest about their hope to exploit the misery of the oppressed. The “liberty” of such men is not at issue; they have none at all, despite their ideology, beyond the common liberty of every other citizen. Activists on behalf of the oppressed do have further rights, but their exercise of these rights is or ought to be restrained by the moral responsibility they have accepted.



To complete my description of that responsibility let me cite a recent case in which one black activist called another to account. The exchange is not of great historical significance, but it is worth examining because it is typical in its content and classical in its form. In 1964 Robert Williams, then living in exile in Cuba, issued a call (echoed many times since) for urban guerrilla warfare by Negro Americans:

The new concept of revolution defies military science and tactics. The new concept is lightning campaigns conducted in highly sensitive urban communities with the paralysis reaching the small communities and spreading to the farm areas. The old method of guerrilla warfare . . . from the hills and countryside, would be ineffective in a powerful country like the USA. Any such force would be wiped out in an hour.5

Thus Williams makes a tactical argument which suggests some sense of moral responsibility to the black community: fewer of its members would die if they fought in this new way. But that is not his primary consideration:

Of course, there would be great losses on the part of our people. How can we expect liberation without losses? Our people are already being admonished by the nonviolent forces to die for Freedom. . . . If we must die, let us die in the only way that the oppressor will feel the weight of our death. Let us die in the tried and proven way of liberation. If we are going to talk about revolution, let us know what revolution means.

Behind these words lies a vision of revolution as a grand moment of retribution, when the last shall suddenly and violently be first. I would be surprised if that were not a fantasy savored by many American blacks. But Williams offers it as a political program, and as a program it has been sharply criticized by Harold Cruse in his book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. I will summarize Cruse’s criticisms in terms of my own three principles, but in doing so I do not mean to suggest that he would endorse the principles as they stand. His own argument is in the service of a particular politics and not of a moral theory.

Cruse begins by insisting that “the masses of our people have not yet said they want a revolution. They want equal rights.”6 This is a goal to which Williams was (in 1964, at least) publicly committed. But equal rights cannot be won by a revolutionary attack upon the social and political structures within which equality is being sought. Perhaps new structures are necessary—Cruse apparently believes this to be the case—but then Williams must say so and try to convince the men he is inviting to die that their death would have some meaning. As it is, the violent methods he advocates bear no relation to the ends he says he shares with other American blacks. They amount to little more than “a grand act of . . . directionless defiance of the power structure.” Moreover, this is a defiance that can only be acted out by a conspiracy of “young warriors.” It hardly requires, nor can it evoke, a mass movement. Williams is the advocate, Cruse suggests, of a “one-sided activism” that not only denies the value, but actually blocks and frustrates, political, economic, and cultural work within the larger black community. Then, too, guerrilla warfare, if it ever began, would not make things any better for the men and women on whose behalf it presumably was being fought. Cruse argues that “it is not enough to say . . . ‘How can we expect liberation without losses?’ It must be added that life is not so cheap that great losses should be bought and paid for by . . . illusory objectives.” Or worse: that the losses should be paid for by still greater losses—not only the immediate “death, waste, and destruction,” but also the more general effects of an exclusive commitment to insurrectionary politics: the anti-intellectualism, the strain toward nihilism, the failure to explore alternative strategies, the a priori rejection of peaceful advance. Cruse’s critique of “young warrior adventurism” strikes precisely at its most vulnerable point: that its votaries are often as contemptuous of the immediate needs of the oppressed as they are, with far greater reason, of the “rights” of the oppressors. Finally, Cruse points to the long-term effect of guerrilla warfare on Negro life in America. Given an urban insurrection or a series of insurrections, and given the sort of response from the white community and from the state that Williams himself anticipates, the result can only be a repression so severe that it would blight all hopes for a genuinely democratic politics. “Race war in the United States would probably mean the end of any hope for the Negroes’ democratic inclusion in the American scheme of things.” Nor is Cruse thinking here only of integration: he means something else, or at least he thinks that something else might be meant. Whatever is meant, however, “democratic inclusion” requires a politics committed to democracy.

Now Williams, or some other supporter of an insurrectionary politics, might reply to this argument in a variety of ways and with more or less force. I am less concerned to insist that Cruse has made his case than that there is a case to be made. This is the form that arguments about responsibility take and should properly take. But I must stress that these arguments reveal to us only the structure or possible structure of obligations among the oppressed. They tell us nothing direcly about obligations to the state or, generally, to its citizens.



There is a sense in which oppression makes men free, and the more radical the oppression the more radical the freedom. Thus slaves have a right to kill their masters, subject peoples their tyrants. They are set loose from the normal restraints of social life because any violence they commit against masters and tyrants can plausibly be called defensive. “Democratic” oppression is more subtle and confusing, in large part because of the way in which the oppressed people are within the democratic system, enjoying the formal and some of the real benefits of membership. They cannot be reduced to mere objects, and though they are still attacked and injured in a multitude of particular ways by particular other people, their greatest injury derives from the fact that they are inferior (less powerful) subjects within the system. Hence it is especially difficult to identify in any plausible way the agents of their oppression. It seems that everyone is guilty, or everyone but a handful of righteous men, and then the appeal of the oppressed to heaven might well be answered with a second Flood. Since the oppressed must pursue their appeal in this world, whom should they attack? Cruse poses this question clearly: “If Negroes are to ‘die in the tried and proven way of liberation,’ precisely whom must we take along with us to oblivion? Is it white people—without distinction? Or is it a certain class of white people located in the power structure? Would it be the army or the National Guard or the police? Or . . . the organized aggression of the radical right wing? Perhaps it would be the federal or state power?” For reasons I will discusss later, the answer is likely to be the first. The war of an oppressed minority, if it comes to that, will almost certainly be terrorist in character.

But a kind of intermittent defensive violence is also likely, directed against particular members of the oppressive majority—marauders, vigilantes, sadistic policemen, and so on. This has little to do with war, or revolution, however it is described, and it requires no general view of oppression to justify it. The state exists to protect its members, the democratic state to protect all its members, and whenever people are not protected, for whatever reasons, they have every right to protect themselves. In the case of an oppressed minority, this principle may well justify a large number of defensive acts and a considerable range of preparations for defense. It can also be expected that one or another of the bands of activists will construe it as an obligation that they join in the preparations or recommend or initiate them.7 So long as they are welcomed by the people they profess to be joining, or helping, that too seems justified. But self-defense and mutual defense are also limiting principles. They apply within the immediate context of violence and not more generally. They do not set people free to engage in preventive or pre-emptive violence. Nor do they set people free to become marauders or vigilantes on their own account. The question is, does oppression itself generate this kind of freedom? Are oppressed men free to become terrorists?

Terrorism has often been called the weapon of the weak, and for a very good reason that needs to be stated clearly: terrorism is also a weapon against the weak, that is, against members of the majority as individual, isolated, helpless men. The terrorist does not risk a head-on battle with the police or the army. He does not challenge the state directly, but only through the commitment of the state to defend the everyday security of its citizens. This is extraordinarily difficult to do when even a small group of terrorists sets out to make it so. The state is vulnerable at this point, if at no other: majorities are made of men, and men are easy to kill. It has to be added that the terrorists do not always mean to coerce only the majority. Terrorism invites violent repression, and this necessarily reaches far beyond the (unknown) murderers and arsonists who are its first targets. So it tends and is often intended to provoke a general crisis in the relation of the oppressed minority and the democratic state, forcing the oppressed into a revolutionary posture. Since the effects of this crisis are often disastrous for the oppressed themselves, as well as for the larger community, its protagonists must be judged in terms of the principles I have already outlined. But I want now to consider terrorism from the standpoint of that larger community, and from the standpoint of the state, and to ask whether the “liberty to appeal to heaven,” given the form it is likely to take, actually exists.

It has to be said first that this appeal is not always intentionally political and not always the work of men who claim to be acting on behalf of others. There is a kind of spontaneous terror, generally concealed in the crime statistics, occasionally exploding in riot and jacquerie, which expresses only the inchoate rage of oppressed men.8 About this, there is painfully little that a moral theorist can say, and much that has been said suggests only that silence is sometimes the most appropriate form of moral discourse. I think it is wrong to attach any honor to such violence or to attempt to justify it (it is not wrong, obviously, to try to understand it). Apolitical murderers and arsonists do not, after all, ask to be justified. They are not claiming a “liberty” and it would be sheer masochism for any of us—their possible victims—to make the claim on their behalf. Nevertheless, the claim has been made. Thus John Thompson in a review in these pages of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner:

We made a community here, agreeing to practice violence only minimally against one another, while reserving the right to practice it totally against others. Negroes . . . were not members of the community. Their nonviolence was imposed, not agreed upon. Now, uninstructed in the unconscious taboos that guard the rest of us from one another, they are free to commit random acts of aggression, pure aggression quite without other aim.9

Styron has brilliantly evoked the meaning of black slavery as a historically specific oppressive system. The reviewer’s “now” is his own, and I am not sure it points to anything more specific than the general guiltiness we all feel. But we must try to say more clearly what we feel guilty about. Black Americans do not experience “total” violence today, for reasons I hope I have already suggested, nor does anyone today reserve the right to practice such violence against them. Nor again can it be said that they are incapable of consenting to (else they would be incapable of participating in) the everyday peacefulness of the political community and of the social life it organizes. If their occasional violence, like that of other oppressed groups, is not unexpected, it remains true that large numbers of specific men and women have entirely legitimate expectation as to their ordinary nonviolence. Nor, finally, are black people “uninstructed in the unconscious taboos” of social life. Many among their militants would say they are “instructed” all too well. They are inhibited even in their self-defense; their random aggression is directed most often against other black people. There is a kind of moral hysteria in the suggestion that such violence is “free.” Indeed, it is utterly wrong to say that anyone’s random aggression is “free.” The victims of “total” violence cannot by definition be aggressive: wherever they strike, they strike someone who has struck them first. And the men who endure more subtle sorts of oppression must look to their “aim.” If in their rage they are incapable of doing that, it is likely that the word “free” cannot be applied to them, in any of its senses.

I do not want to suggest, however, that the spontaneous terrorist is simply a criminal. His violence is done without right, yet it expresses a rage which may well be justified. It warns us of the existence of a class of men, in whose condition we are implicated, whom we cannot easily judge. They are neither wholly within nor wholly outside the political community; they are estranged but not strangers, our fellow citizens and our nearest enemies. Since we cannot grant their freedom to kill us, we must face up to the causes of their rage.



Political terrorism is very different: it is random aggression with another aim, and so to be judged at least partly in conventional means-ends terms. The political terrorist is also to be judged, as I shall try to show, by the way he is within the political community, the precise forms of his membership and his estrangement. In this sense, terrorism seems almost appropriate to secessionist movements, since it serves to shatter the minimal moral cohesion of the community, and this is precisely what the secessionists want to do and claim a right to do. That is a right they may have, and can only have, if the community has already failed to include them, if they are within it only as objects of radical exclusion, brutality, and humiliation. It is at least possible to imagine oppression so severe that terrorism aimed systematically at political division might be morally defensible. The price is high, however, for the use of terror is likely to have divisive and demoralizing effects upon the oppressed men and women whose interests it supposedly serves as well as upon the larger community. It undermines their confidence in mass action, that is, in their own action, and invites them passively to watch what must be called a degrading spectacle—degrading especially if they vicariously enjoy it. Nor will it be easy for the oppressed to free themselves from the activists whom their passivity enfranchises: an elite of assassins who may one day claim to have set them free.10

These arguments apply as well to a dispersed minority seeking a different sort of liberation, except that now there is no possibility at all of a symmetry of moral and political division. Whenever it is intended that oppressed and oppressor groups live together as equals and that political unity be preserved, terrorism must be rejected out of hand. And it is usually the position of activists on behalf of oppressed (and dispersed) minorities that coexistence of some sort is possible, once freedom and equality have been won. They commit themselves, then, to the political community, not as it is, but as it might be, with its present population. That commitment can take as many forms as there are projects for a new state. Whatever its form, it seems to me to preclude the murder of randomly selected, specifically innocent men and women. For these are potential citizens, with whom the terrorist is, or pretends to be, or plans to be, united.



But I want to argue more than this, beginning again with the special condition of the people I am considering: they are oppressed citizens; they are formally free and equal. I have suggested that activists working on their behalf ought to exploit the formal rules of the democratic system. Now insofar as they do this, or rather, insofar as they do it with some success, they begin the process of transforming their citizenship into something real (something valuable as well). That means also that they begin acquiring obligations within the democratic state where they work and to its citizens among whom they find allies and supporters. At the same time, however, their obligations continue to be mediated by the patterns of responsibility that exist within the world of the oppressed. The result is a situation of extraordinary complexity, sometimes of deep personal agony, which I can only outline here. The activist takes advantage of democratic rules in order to expose their hypocrisy. But if the rules yield advantages, they are not entirely hypocritical. Then they must be respected, and first of all by the activist. If he respects them too much, however, if he settles comfortably into the political community, he forgets the men and women on whose behalf he is working; he is accused, perhaps rightly, of selling out. He must frequently move beyond the range of actions normally sanctioned by democratic rules in order to extend their application to the whole of the oppressed group. He may move far beyond the normal range, accepting whatever risks this involves. Yet if he acts to undermine the rules themselves, he benefits no one; he makes future action more difficult. Then he breaks faith both with the oppressed and with his fellow citizens.

The “liberty to appeal to heaven” exists only when heaven is the only appeal. So long as activists on behalf of the oppressed appeal in fact to other men and find channels available to do so, they incur obligations within the political community that makes the appeal possible. This is what it means, the least that it means, to act within a democratic system: that one is bound to respect the general freedom to act and the lives of all possible actors. These, however, are minimal obligations, and with respect to any further political duties, the oppressed are in a special and very difficult position—one that may best be defined by suggesting that they possess, within the state, the liberty to refuse, to say no to the laws they have not been able to join in making. They possess the liberty to refuse because they have themselves been refused full participation in the democratic community. The activists, on the other hand, begin to say yes, and I have tried to elucidate the moral consequences of a struggle against oppression that utilizes (successfully) the possibilities of an open political system. But so long as oppression persists, oppressed men and women retain the right, not to destroy the democratic state or to make war against it, but to deny it what they have to give: their loyalty, service, and obedience. Activists on their behalf are free to repeat this refusal and to organize it in the struggle.

There are options open to them, then, that are closed to every other group of political men. If I have stressed the fact that these are limited options, I have not meant to deny their reality, but only to respond to the “mistaken theory” and common cant that the oppressed are right whatever they do. In fact, of course, the oppressed may rightly do more (and differently) than I suggest. For the liberty that is theirs belongs to them as a group, by virtue of their oppression, while the obligations belong only to those among them who choose to be active in the political community. Liberty is passively “enjoyed,” while obligations are incurred through action. And this suggests the possibility of a kind of action that avoids the obligations I have described by avoiding any use of democratic politics. Thus an honest revolutionary, though he may not “work effectively for the oppressed” and so may fail in his duty to them, never breaks faith with the other citizens of the state. He is simply and avowedly their enemy (and his war may or may not be just). It cannot be said that the “liberty to appeal to heaven” exists only when heaven is the only appeal that can be made. It exists only when heaven is the only appeal that is made.

But the honest revolutionary is an unlikely and in fact a rare figure in a democratic state. More common is the man who uses the open arena of political life to express his terrible anger, to talk loosely of violence and revolution. Of him it must be said that he has a right to talk—that is what the arena is for—but if he ever acts out his words, he will act wrongly. Most of the time he just talks, for he does not have the power to act. Then people like myself worry about what he is saying and, hopelessly and perhaps presumptuously, try to tell him what he should and should not do. The important question, of course, is what we should and should not do. That, however, is much easier to answer.



The argument that the oppressed are right whatever they do has as its practical corollary the argument that they cannot be criticized whatever they do. So men who otherwise speak and write a great deal are sometimes led to keep silent, and sometimes, perhaps, silence is our best choice. I have already urged this choice in the case of the spontaneous violence of the oppressed: we neither praise nor blame someone like Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas. With regard to premeditated action or to literary or ideological creativity (not Bigger Thomas, but Native Son), we cannot so easily be silent. And if we speak at all, we can hardly refrain from criticism. Criticism, in all its senses, is simply the mode of our speech. The implicit pledge any intellectual makes to his readers is that he will criticize, is criticizing, freely and honestly. This pledge may be mediated by a variety of agencies, magazines, publishing houses, theaters, and so on, that promise their audience something more: relevance, propriety, fashion, this or that political creed. But no one buys a magazine or comes to the theater expecting to be deceived, whatever his other expectations; he does not read a book in order to see important questions avoided. He expects writers and artists to tell whatever truth they know. He is counting on their judgments as a guide to his own thought and action. If they lie or conceal what they know or decline to commit themselves at all (even in the complex and ambiguous ways that are their prerogative and perhaps their necessity), they are breaking faith. They are breaking faith, however noble their reasons.

Two of the most common reasons do not seem to me noble at all. It is often said, first, that criticizing the politics or ideology of the oppressed plays into the hands of their oppressors. In fact, the precise opposite is true. The best possible movement of the oppressed requires the best possible criticism—dispassionate, tireless, utterly honest. “There is no greater crime,” wrote Trotsky, “than deceiving the masses, palming off defeats as victories and friends as enemies . . . fabricating legends.” When new mystifications replace the old, there is no end to oppression.

The second argument requires not that we lie but that we refrain altogether from criticism: only the oppressed, it is said, can understand their own condition and judge the appropriateness of their own response. Here the intellectual of the “oppressor” culture defers to his “oppressed” colleague. He candidly confesses his moral incapacities. But candor in this regard is something less than faithfulness. Thus Richard Gilman in a review of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice:

In its victories of understanding, its blindness and incompletions, its clean or inchoate energies, its internal motives and justifications [Cleaver’s] writing remains in some profound sense not subject to correction or emendation or, most centrally, approval or rejection by those of us who are not black. . . . We want to be able to say without self-consciousness or inverted snobbery that such and such a Negro is a bastard or a lousy writer, but we are nowhere near that stage.11

If Gilman means that Negroes are free to write badly, the point is indisputable; they are as free as any of us are. If he means that we (white intellectuals) cannot tell when they do write badly, he must speak for himself; they are, after all, writing in a language they share with the rest of us, choosing words and phrases whose meanings we know. They do not have or even claim to have a private language.12 If he means that we cannot judge what they say, then he is evading his responsibility as a critic. A writer like Cleaver is not discussing esoteric issues, but common and vital issues that have been discussed before, well and badly, by whites and blacks alike. If he means, finally, that we have no right to criticize black writers (even if we are able), then he has a strange idea of the commitment of an intellectual. I should have thought he had no right to publish an uncritical review. Surely a reviewer owes to his author the most sympathetic reading he is capable of and to his readers the clearest description of his literary and moral response.

When an intellectual writes about the oppression of others, he must imitate the Jews at the Passover seder and imagine that he too was a slave in Egypt. When he writes about an oppressive government, however committed he may be against it, he must imagine that he too was an Egyptian. Such imaginings are hard—I suspect the second is easier for most intellectuals—and we must be suspicious whenever the result is a merely facile empathy or “understanding.” For it is not just the feelings of the others, but their situation, ideology, arguments, and choices, that must be imaginatively entered into and intellectually joined. The possibility of doing this, for all the difficulties involved and the likely failures, establishes the right of criticism. Having made the effort, the intellectual must report the results, revealing his own “victories of understanding . . . blindness and incompletions.” His readers are waiting, and they need to know.



1 Second Treatise, paragraph 168. Locke specifies that this liberty only exists when the oppressed “have no judge on earth,” but he seems to believe that they have “no judge” and so no appeal short of heaven (that is, war) whenever the government designs or participates in their oppression.

2 This argument does not relate only to politics, but also to art and culture: see Irving Howe, “Black Boys and Native Sons,” Dissent, Autumn 1963.

3 In the paragraphs that follow, I have been helped a great deal by Hannah Pitkin's discussion of what it means to “act for” someone else, in The Concept of Representation, Chapter 6. I should note as she does (p. 127) that the Oxford English Dictionary distinguishes the phrases “on behalf of” and “in behalf of.” The first indicates a representative function (acting in someone else's name, with his authorization); the second has the sense which I have singled out: “in the interest of, as friend or defender of, for the benefit of,” but the phrase is no longer in common use. “On behalf of” is now used in both senses.

4 Quoted in Shlomo Avineri, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, p. 201.

5 Robert Williams in The Crusader (monthly newsletter published by Williams while in Cuba), February 1964, quoted in Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, pp. 386—387.

6 Cruse's argument is presented on pp. 347—401 of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.

7 Thus A. Philip Randolph, writing in the socialist monthly The Messenger (1919) on “How to Stop Lynching,” urged physical resistance to white mobs in accordance with “the law of self-defense.”

8 Richard Wright's Native Son is the best description I have seen of the rage of the oppressed exploding in violence.

9 “Rise and Slay!” November 1967.

10 A number of people who read this article in manuscript have asked me to place the Black Panthers within its formal argument. I don't find this easy to do. Certainly, some of the Panthers advocate political terrorism, and, perhaps, hope to become terrorists themselves, American counterparts of the FLN or Al-Fatah. But I doubt that these hopes have been realized—whether because of political weakness or moral scruples, I cannot tell. The current political line of the Panthers calls only for “self-defense,” though it is not clear whether or not this involves a repudiation of Huey Newton's earlier (1967) statements that policemen might be “executed while sipping coffee.” The point is obvious, but it is probably worth saying that such “executions” would not constitute self-defense at all, but acts of terror (and murder) . So far as I can tell from newspaper accounts, most of the recent violence in which Panthers have been involved has been defensive on their part. It's difficult to draw any other conclusion from the implausible stories the police tell after almost every shoot-out. But the Panthers pay the price of their loose talk in that many of us can't be sure.

11“White standards and Negro Writing,” New Republic, March 9, 1969. For a critique similar to my own, see Jervis Anderson, “Race, Rage & Eldridge Cleaver,” COMMENTARY, December 1968.

12 Compare Sartre on Fanon: “An ex-native, French-speaking, bends that language to new requirements, makes use of it, and speaks to the colonized only . . .” The Wretched of the Earth, Preface. But he speaks French; and if he did not, he would be translated (his language is available for translation) . No writer who publishes his work can choose his readers—or his critics.

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