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The Right to Use Force

Journal for Religious Socialism,

vol. 1, no. 41

Re Section I
1. "The legal system tends to react to attempts to destroy it by resorting to
coercion, whether it be coercively to preserve or to restore the right order."
This statement is correct in itself, but it is a mistake to explain it with
reference to the internal tendency of the law to establish its authority. What
is at issue here is a subordinate reality which the law addresses. What is at
issue is the violent rhythm of impatience in which the law exists and has its
temporal order, as opposed to the good (?) rhythm of expectation in which
messianic events unfold.
2. "Only the state has the right to use force" (and every use of its force
stands in need of a particular law).
If the state is conceived as the supreme organ of law, then the validity of
(2) follows necessarily from (1). Moreover, it is irrelevant whether the
supreme authority of the state derives from its own authority or from an
authority outside itself. In other words, (2) holds good also for an earthly
theocracy. A definition of the relation of the state to the legal system other
than the two outlined in the preceding sentence is not conceivable.
Re Section II
Critical possibilities.i-'
A. To deny the right of the state and the individual to use force.
B. To recognize unconditionally the right of the state and the individual to use force.

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C. To recognize the state's right to use force.


D. To recognize the individual's sole right to use force.
Re (A): This view is described by the author as ethical anarchism. His
refutation of it cannot be sustained. (1) For the idea of a level of cultural
development that has been attained "by force" and allegedly justifies the
use of force is a contradictio in adjecto. (2) It is a very modern error
springing from very mechanistic ways of thinking to argue that any cultural
order can be built up from the satisfaction of minimal needs such as the
securing of physical existence. We can perhaps establish the indices of
cultural progress that could then become the goals of human aspirations.
But these would certainly not be the minimal factors mentioned above. (3)
It is quite wrong to assert that, in a constitutional state, the struggle for
existence becomes a struggle for law. On the contrary, experience shows
conclusively that the opposite is the case. And this is necessarily so, since
the law's concern with justice is only apparent, whereas in truth the law is
concerned with self-preservation. In particular, with defending its existence
against its own guilt. In the last analysis, a normative force always comes
down in favor of existing reality. (4) The conviction that, despite any
objections the ethical philosopher may advance, coercion "influences the
inner attitudes of human beings" is based on a crude quaternio terminorum."
inasmuch as "inner attitude" is confused with "ethical attitude." For otherwise this argument fails to prove anything about moral attitudes.-In contrast, so-called ethical anarchism is invalid for quite different reasons. See
my essay "Life and Force."!
Re (B):This thesis, which the author advances in II under (2), is self-contradictory. The state is not a person like any other but the supreme legal
authority, which, when it is given ethical recognition as in the statement
above, excludes any absolute right of individuals to use force. The author,
however, seems to accept that very belief, since, without renouncing the
claims of the state, he acknowledges that individuals may have the right to
use force.
Re (C): This statement can be defended in principle where the view
prevails that the ethical order generally assumes the form of a legal system
which then can be conceived of only as mediated by the state. The prevailing
law at the time calls for the recognition of this statement, without implementing it. (In present circumstances its implementation is scarcely conceivable.)
Re (D): This is a thesis whose factual impossibility seems so obvious to
the author that he does not realize it is a specificpoint of view whose logical
possibility is not in doubt. Instead he dismisses it as an illogical one-sided
application of the idea of ethical anarchism. Nevertheless, it must be defended where, on the one hand (in contrast to (A)), no contradiction in

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principle can be discerned between force and morality, and, on the other
hand (in contrast to (C)), a contradiction in principle is perceived between
morality and the state (or the law). An exposition of this standpoint is one
of the tasks of my moral philosophy, and in that connection the term
"anarchism" may very well be used to describe a theory that denies a moral
right not to force as such but to every human institution, community, or
individuality that either claims a monopoly over it or in any way claims
that right for itself from any point of view, even if only as a general principle,
instead of respecting it in specific cases as a gift bestowed by a divine power,
as absolute power.
Two comments on the editor's Afterword.
I. "Ethical anarchism" is actually fraught with contradictions as a political
plan-that is, as a plan of action concerned with the emergence of a new
world order. Nevertheless, the other arguments brought against it are themselves open to objection. (1) If it is asserted that "every nonadult" in fact
has no other means of combating a violent attack, we may retort that
frequently adults have no other recourse either (and anyway this has nothing
to do with adulthood). Moreover, nothing is further from the mind of
"ethical anarchism" than to propose a weapon against force. (2) There can
be no objection to the "gesture" of nonviolence, even where it ends in
martyrdom. In morality, above all in questions of moral action, Mignon's
dictum, "So let me seem, until I becorne.:" has absolute validity. No appearance can better transfigure a person than this. (3) As to the prognoses about
the political success of this strategy of nonviolence as well as of the permanent rule of force on earth, the greatest skepticism is not unjustified, particularly with regard to this last point-insofar
as by "force" we are to
understand "physical action."
On the other hand (invalid as "ethical anarchism" may be as a political
program), a form of action along the lines it recommends can (as we have
already suggested under (2)) elevate the morality of the individual or the
community to the greatest heights in situations where they are suffering
because God does not appear to have commanded them to offer violent
resistance. When communities of Galician Jews let themselves be cut down
in their synagogues without any attempt to defend themselves, this has
nothing to do with "ethical anarchism" as a political program; instead the
mere resolve "not to resist evil" emerges into the sacred light of day as a
form of moral action.
)
II. It is both possible and necessary to reach a universally valid conclusion
about the right to use force, because the truth about morality does not call .---/
a halt at the illusion of moral freedom.-However,
if we set aside what we
have already maintained and allow ourselves to indulge in ad hominem
arguments, we can see that a subjective decision in favor of or against the
use of force in the abstract cannot really be entertained, because a truly

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subjective decision is probably conceivable only in the light of specific goals


and wishes.
Fragment written in 1920; unpublished in Benjamin's lifetime. Translated by Rodney
Livingstone.

Notes
1. Herbert Vorwerk, "Das Recht zur Gewaltanwendung" [The Right to Use Force],
Blatter fur religiosen Sozialismus, ed. Carl Mennicke (Berlin, 1920), vol. 1, no.
4.-Trans.
2. In these disjunctions the individual stands opposed not to the living community
but to the state.
3. For the state, the options listed here hold good in its dealings with other states,
as well as in those with its citizens.
4. A syllogism may have only three terms, but if one is used ambiguously, a fourth
term is inadvertently created. This is the quaternio terminorum, or Fallacy of
Four Terms.-Trans.
5. An essay from the early 1920s, now lost.-Trans.
6. See J. W. van Goethe, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. Mignon has dressed up
as an angel for a theatrical performance; her statement expresses her premonitions of death.-Trans.