The Roots of Violence

The Social Context of Violent Behaviour by Emanuel Marx. Routledge & Kegan Paul, £3.50.


“Human Nature” is the oldest and stubbornest cry against Socialism. It is stubborn because the arguer believes he knows things about human beings that make a harmonious society of equals impossible: either too many are perverse, or the whole lot of us have greed and aggression built in. It is not a matter of well-known monsters — Jack the Ripper, the Moors murderers, the Kray brothers can be accepted as exceptional cases — but of familiar conduct like vandalism, bullying and truculence. They ruin good relationships today; the “human nature” argument is that they would ruin Socialism if it were tried.


The Socialist answer is that “human nature” is a misnomer. What is being described is human behaviour, which (with estimates of particular kinds of it as “good” or reprehensible) continually changes. Man is a social being whose strongest tendency is to co-operation and order, or we should not be here today. Against examples of the “bad” can be set countless opposite ones. Yet everyday anti-social expressions are a fact in present-day society, and their causes are other social facts.


Dr. Marx’s book is an analysis of personal aggression and damage to property in a small Israeli town called “Galilah” from 1964 to 1966. The examples given are of the sort which may get briefly reported in local newspapers in Britain. Domestic beating-up; a man smashing things in a café; threats and assaults. A case-history of each is given. Some, says Marx, are “sound, rational and deliberate action” — violence is the way for the offender to get what he wants or needs, and it follows rules he has learned from his masters. Chapter 2 is about legal and moral attitudes to violence in various societies, and the writer argues that the more a ruling class monopolizes force the more it disapproves of fisticuffs among individual citizens.


There is also what he calls “appealing violence”, where individuals are frustrated into irrational acts towards their families and the public. The old-fashioned name for this is “taking it out on the cat”. Marx sees it as a cry for help. But it is not necessary to follow psychiatric arguments to understand what he is saying: that violent personal behaviour is not “human nature”. It is a reaction forced out by social conditions, and its manner is on the lines of accepted social formulae. In Galilah he attributes all of it to “the near-monopoly of a handful of officials over the material resources available to the inhabitants” — which is close to a description of any class society.


The book ends with a request for more research into violence. On its evidence, a demand to organize for the abolition of the causes is far more to the point.


Robert Barltrop