The Effectiveness of Political Violence in History

Or, "How'd punching Nazis work out last time?"

People in the United States are starting to talk about using political violence in response to perceived dangerous political extremism and violent rhetoric. We look through history to see how the use of violence had worked or not worked to suppress unwelcome political ideologies.

We look purely at the results and consequences of the violence, rather than discussing the morality or ethics of it. 

Notes and Sources

Full Transcript

Xander Snyder: Welcome to another episode of ReConsider, where we don't do the thinking for you. Today we're going to be talking about a subject that's been coming up a little bit more in the last couple of weeks, really, and that is political violence. We're going to define what exactly we mean by political violence. We're going to talk about some different categories and we'll get all into that in a minute.

Some quick housekeeping before we do. A quick reminder that we have recently opened a Patreon page. Patreon is a website that lets you support patronage, hence the name, support your favorite podcasts or videos or YouTube channels and all of that good stuff. We subscribe to the Dan Carlin model of giving, which is a buck-a-show and that's all we ask. Erik and I put a good amount of time and research into each one of these episodes to help bring you the best context on what's going on in the world so that you can make your own decisions, to help you reconsider your own perspectives, so we'd love that. The website is Also we are, of course, on social media, on Twitter and Facebook, @reconsiderpod, so check us out there. We obviously throw up new podcasts whenever they come out, new articles whenever they're written, and occasionally we'll put up an interesting link to a news article or something like that, or there's an event going on; occasionally we will live tweet it. Finally, we would also very much appreciate if you wouldn't mind throwing us a review on your favorite pod-catcher.

Erik Fogg: Oh, yes.

Xander Snyder: Be that iTunes or Google Play or what have you. The more reviews we get, the higher up we move in the ranking, the more we are able to get our message out to more people, so we would very much appreciate that. Lastly, if you didn't know, did you know we have show notes?

Erik Fogg: We have show notes?

Xander Snyder: We have show notes.

Erik Fogg: Oh, right. I write them.

Xander Snyder: What are show notes? Well, if you ever wonder where we get the information that we're bringing to you, we source everything and we provide that to you free of charge, at the bottom of ...

Erik Fogg: The post on ... yeah, bottom of the post on the ReConsider website.

Xander Snyder: Exactly, so you can get all of the show notes at There's lots more detail for the information curious of you out there.

Erik Fogg: Yes. Let's get started. Why are we making this episode? Well, political violence has come a bit back into vogue recently as Richard Spencer got punched twice while on the air, and Shia LaBeouf punched a guy counter-protesting Shia LaBeouf's Facebook live event. Twitter blew up, the news blew up and most mainstream reactions have moved between sort of turbulence to hesitantly mentioning that perhaps maybe punching people might just be a bad idea. The hashtag you've probably seen is #PunchNazis or something like that, and people are having serious conversations over, "Well, should we find people that we're going to call Nazis, and run around and punch them? Can this be a legitimate way of using violence in politics in order to get the outcome that we want?" In this case the outcome is the suppression of the political expression of these people that are being called Nazis.

Xander Snyder: The question we're going to ask today and the discussion that we're going to have to attempt to answer it is, is this sort of political violence effective? Has it worked before? What form does it usually take? I mean, is going out and punching someone after calling them a Nazi usually going to accomplish the goals that you want? First, we're going to define political violence. What do we mean by political violence? Specifically, we're going to be referring to violence that is used to suppress a certain political group or ideology. We're going to talk about where it's happened before and give you some historical examples. We're going to talk about whether in these historical circumstances the political violence accomplished its aims, and what some of the ramifications or consequences there were as a result.

We're going to break down political violence into four general categories. The first is governments v. governments, so this includes whole countries going at each other. The second is going to be governments against citizens. The third is citizens against governments. The fourth and final is going to be citizens against citizens. Now we'll run through all four of these categories, but we'll end up focusing a bit more on the fourth. Why is that? That's because that's what we've been seeing more of recently in the US and what we've being seeing some sings of a normalization of. In other words, people normalizing this sort of activity.

Erik Fogg: Yeah. Things we're not going to be talking about are the morality, the ethics, the justice or any other values considerations of these kinds of political violence. Whether you approve of one form of political violence or another depends on your political and moral philosophy, and we're not going to tell what should be a value for you.

Xander Snyder: We don't think for you.

Erik Fogg: Exactly. For the liberal case against suppression of political views regardless of the validity of these views or regardless of the methodology being used to suppress them, we can refer you to our previous episode, Free Speech in America. We'll put that up in show notes. Some people have said, "But Erik, Nazis aren't a political ideology, so they're not going to fit into your discussion." My only thing with that is that saying that Nazism is a political ideology is not a validation of the view in any way, but it is a political ideology by the technical sense of the term and it is a political ideology that some people are talking about suppressing. We're going to dive right in looking at these four categories, talking about the effectiveness and the outcomes of political violence in suppressing political ideology or speech over history.

Xander Snyder: The first category is government against government. We're going to be talking about specifically political violence that is used to stop the spread of an alternative ideology or to impose a new ideology or political system, so we're going to be talking about government v. government violence outside of the context of geopolitical driven wars and conflicts. Frankly, there's going to be a lot of overlap, but we're going to be talking about the ideological aspects of this as it relates to political violence. What's the first example that we have for you in recent history? In the early 19th century there were the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon was essentially attempting to bring a new form of enlightened despotism to Europe. One example of this would be his code of laws, the Napoleonic Code. This was due to a number of complex ideological and geopolitical reasons, but part of it was due to other governments threatening to tear down the revolutionary government in France.

Erik Fogg: "Liberty, equality, fraternity. Now kill those Russians. They hate our freedom, and if you don't want to, well, too bad. You're drafted now."

Xander Snyder: Exactly. There's this whole Russian revolution in the 1790s where the monarchy was toppled and went through all these different violent phases, but what this did was scare the crap out of the rest of the monarchies in Europe who thought, "Oh, man. Oh, am I going to have to deal with this revolution stuff?" That was one of the genesis. That was part of the genesis of the conflict between the other autocratic states that still existed in Europe and this rapidly transforming society in France that ultimately still became despotic. Napoleon goes to war with the rest Europe. He almost achieves victory, but the rest of the countries in Europe end up binding together and fighting against him, and that leads to his defeat and after Waterloo, the Battle of Waterloo, ultimately the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in France.

Erik Fogg: And don't forget General Winter, blasted General Winter.

Xander Snyder: Blasted General Winter.

Erik Fogg: After the Napoleonic Wars in the 1800s, Russia, who had been invaded and almost completely destroyed by France, took a pretty dismal view on anti-monarchical revolutions throughout Europe. They decided, "Well, these are probably not going to work out so well for us or for just the stable European order that we really value." Remember the Russians marched all the way across Europe after repelling Napoleon and landed in Paris to finally end that phase of the Napoleonic War. They were very interested in making sure that new Republican revolutions would not spring up across Europe.

In particular in the Revolutions of 1848, the Russians took a very active role in suppressing those revolutions and making sure that the monarchy stayed in place. To some extent, whether the monarchies really wanted their help or not, the Russians often got militarily involved, particularly in the Uprisings in Austria and Lithuanian-Poland in order to preserve these monarchies. Similarly, Russia saw a threat not just from Republics, but from Islamic theocracies.

Just like feeling a threat from an alternative ideology in Republican style revolutions, they felt a threat from the growing wave of Islamic state-ship in the Balkans, and so this was a big driver of the Crimean War and the Russo-Turkish War, even though they were monarchy v. monarchy. It was still somewhat driven by these ideological divides that they had, and each side wanted to impose its ideology, either Christian monarchical or Muslim Sultanate on the Balkan regions.

Xander Snyder: We hop forward about 100 years into the more recent history that a lot of people are probably more familiar with. Half the 20th century was essentially defined by an ideological conflict between the Soviet Union, Communism, and the United States and the rest of the West, capitalism. Basically most of the hot conflicts that occurred in the Cold War can be defined in one sense as being ideologically driven, and therefore being a case of this inter-governmental political violence. What are some specific cases of this? The first hot battle in the Cold War, if you want to call it that, the "police action," the Korean War, the US intervention in Korea. That was followed up not too much later by US intervention in Vietnam, which turned out to be a pretty costly failure and remains to be seen if the domino theory was proven incorrect or not, but lots of people on both sides ended up dying trying to test that hypothesis.

Later in the 20th century, the US intervened in somewhat less direct roles. We didn't send out military, for example, in these cases, but in South America we intervened in Chile and Argentina essentially to try to stop Communist governments from getting a foothold in South America. After the failure in Vietnam, there was absolutely no domestic political will to send the military, so we ended up intervening in a lot of these places through the CIA and other clandestine manners. Throughout the 20th century, within the umbrella of the Cold War, the United States was intervening or engaging in some version of political violence in one way or another to restrain or prevent the expansion of Communism, a political ideology.

Erik Fogg: Even before 9/11, the United States was interested not only in stopping the spread of Communism, but also of Islamic theological governments. If we look to the 1980s, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the United States was very concerned about this revolution spreading, taking over the Middle East and creating a united Middle Eastern Islamic Califate, and so when Iraq decided to invade Iran for probably more geopolitical or resource grabbing reasons than ideological ones for these ideological purposes, the United States decided to support the Iraqi invasion. It turns out that the Iraqis ran into a somewhat unprepared but quite motivated Iran that had hordes of young men with no guns, but red bandanas tied to their foreheads that would mass charge Iraqi gun emplacements and take them over by beating the gunners to death, and then turning the guns around, so it turned into a humiliating defeat for Iraq and the United States, which supported it.

When we're talking about ideological warfare, we can also look at civil wars. One of the tough things about civil wars is that some of them look a lot like revolutions, where others look like governments against governments. We will talk more about revolutions later because those are citizens against government, but there are a few that look a lot like government against government. For example, the United States Civil War in which the South tried to impose its own ideology in its region, and the North tried to reimpose the union on the South. In part, this was an ideological war over slavery and states' rights. Of course, the North won. A lot of people died.

Similarly in the Libyan Civil War that's current since 2014 after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, there have been these two competing governments, both of which in this case lay a claim to all of Libya that have been duking it out. Many fewer people have died, but what is left in Libya right now is a shaky ceasefire and a split country where actually the power vacuum caused by the war has allowed a lot of little groups like the Tuaregs to pop up and stink out their own territory. When we look at this history of governments using political violence as a tool to impose their ideology, it's quite dicey. Some of them worked, some of them didn't. Even if you look in the Cold War, I think that a lot of the United States interventions were either partial successes, or if you think of the case of Vietnam, outright failures and a waste of people, a waste of life, a waste of resources.

Xander Snyder: Yeah. I mean, at the end you can say we won the Cold War, so in that sense it was a triumph, but does the long term engagement itself count as political violence since there were hot flare-ups, or not? That kind of turns into a definitional issue, but there are mixed results.

The next category we're going to talk about is governments against citizens. Specifically, governments employ political violence against citizens to attempt to eliminate alternative ideologies that pose a potential challenge to the established order, so some examples of this. In the French Revolution, which we talked about a moment ago, before Napoleon got to the point where he was marching his massive newly organized army against the other countries in Europe, there was a period called the Reign of Terror, which was when a guy named Robespierre got a hold of power during a certain chaotic period in the French Revolution and used it to attempt to completely destroy anti-revolutionary sentiments. This was temporarily successful. He killed a ton of people and the image of the guillotine became iconic of this era.

Erik Fogg: The French Razor.

Xander Snyder: Exactly. Ugh, man. A lot of people will say, "Well, you know, the guillotine, not such an enlightened concept, right?" But at the time they kind of thought it was because before the guillotine, you're hacking people's heads off with axes, and people would miss or the executioner would get drunk the night before, so the guillotine was kind-

Erik Fogg: Are you citing an episode of The Tudors?

Xander Snyder: Maybe. Maybe I am.

Erik Fogg: Yeah. Oh, god, that was brutal.

Xander Snyder: You're welcome, Heather. Somewhere, somewhere Heather Teysko is listening to us. Anyways, there was a lot more room for human error and it wasn't as clean, it wasn't as quick, so the guillotine was actually seen as an enlightened way of execution.

Erik Fogg: Yeah. In the case of the Reign of Terror, the justification was that, "Look, these people are counter-revolutionary. Some of them want to reimpose the evil monarchy. They want to oppress the people. Killing them is absolutely within not just our purview, but it's our mandate. It's a responsibility to kill them in order to protect these new free citizens from counter-revolutionary ideas." There was a very compelling case for the people who supported it.

Xander Snyder: It's almost how during the Inquisition they would burn people alive to provide them the opportunity to repent at the last moment by tasting just a little bit of hell fire before it was too late. I mean, that makes sense, right?

Erik Fogg: That's very nice of them.

Xander Snyder: Ugh. This was a case of government v. citizen political violence in the late 18th century. We talked about the Soviet Union. As the USSR was becoming established in the early 20th century, after Lenin took power and later when Stalin took power, there were massive purges in the Soviet Union of everyone ranging from generals to peasants, but ultimately there was some sense of logic from the perspective of the government because they were attempting to intimidate any potential opposing view point. They needed to establish their new power base and make sure that no one challenged them, so this meant killing a lot of anti-Communists. The thing is, millions of people died, many more were sent to the Gulags, but it was kind of successful in that if the goal of the government was to establish and maintain their power, Soviet Union was around for another 70 years, so this particular case of government v. citizen violence was successful.

Erik Fogg: We can same in Nazi Germany. Germany is famous, of course, during the Nazi period for having killed Jews, gays, transgender people, disabled people, Roma, stuff like that, but before the genocides, the Nazis established themselves by purging and killing a whole lot of people that disagreed with them. Remember that they got into power as minority government. Ultimately, by the time they took over, they'd only received 30 some odd percent of the vote. In order to consolidate power and intimidate people into allowing their agenda to go ahead, they used massive force.

In particular for them, they used of course the SS, the brown shirts, that would go around to disappear people, drag them off if they had said something that was out of line, and these people would just go away. This was sort of the first and most iconic case of the secret police coming around to disappear you when you were a political dissonant. It was of course also quite effective. They killed hundreds of thousands of dissonants, obviously millions of other people. In prison, many more. We saw the same thing in East Germany to a smaller extent. The Stasi would go around disappearing people who opposed the East Germany Communist government. The Chinese Communist purges after the Chinese Revolution, the Communist Revolution in China. They also purged in two major waves millions of people. They often had organized killing of people or sending them to reeducation camps, or what they would do is they would propagandized groups of kids to go around intimidating and killing people who were considered counter-revolutionary or considered reactionary, and threats to the Communist order.

Xander Snyder: Then in even more recent history there were the South American dictatorships that they cropped up in different time periods in different countries, but in late '60s through the '70s up through the early 80s, dictatorships took hold in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile. These were all basically supported by the United States, which were trying to prevent the emergence of Communism in the Southern Hemisphere. These dictatorships claimed to be disappearing "terrorists" but really they were just trying to suppress alternative political ideology, Communism. Tens of thousands of people disappeared in this time period and the dictatorships were capable of holding on to power for 10 to 15 years, depending on the country.

Erik Fogg: For most of these governments, they were ultimately taken down by state on state action rather than people on state action. If we look to the Soviet Union, if we look to Nazi Germany, that was the case. The Communist Chinese still holds strong, and a lot of South American dictatorships were eventually dismantled because they crumbled from the inside.

Xander Snyder: In the case of Argentina, the final stroke that broke the dictatorship was the war against the UK in the Malvinas. The Argentinian government tried to stoke up more nationalist sentiment because that's how they were holding on to power. They went to a war that they were unprepared for and just got annihilated, and that was the beginning of the end for them.

Erik Fogg: What can we learn from these examples? One of them is that when the government commits to using mass violence in a very deadly way and is able to engage the entire apparatus of the state to suppress a political ideology, it is very successful. Most of these successes have also occurred in a period where the government was able to use that violence to exert a relative monopoly on information, but one of things we have to take away from this is that the successful suppression of ideology within one's own borders was successfully carried out through massive shows of force, and intimation alone didn't work.

People had to die. Hardcore dissonance had to die, and it was the death and disappearing of these people that ultimately convinced others that continued resistance was futile. That was how they were able to successfully suppress alternative ideologies from being spoken in their countries, and even though they were successful, they often created vast economic, political and social turbulence. Sometimes they caused backlash or unintended consequences, and of course, they had to kill many of their own people, but to some extent, that was the point. They guys won due to their commitment to kill in order to get their way. None of these regimes were overcome by the political groups that they purged.

So category three, citizens against governments. Obviously there are very, very many of these. There have been a lot of revolutions throughout history. Almost always, revolutions are an attempt to replace a certain political system or ideology with another system or ideology. Often it is case that that ideology changes which class is in charge, but it is typically a different ideology, so these are citizens using force to set up a government that supports their ideology.

There are a few examples of this that we can look at. The economical one, of course, is the American Revolution, right? Citizens initially protested against the British government, but when the British sent troops to reimpose British rule, Americans took up arms against the British, and after a long and costly war, the British finally decided, "We've had enough. We're leaving. You can have your own country. Good luck." There was, of course, as we covered earlier, the FARC rebellion in Colombia. These were Communists that were attempting to replace the Colombian government with a Communist government. They failed. If we look back to Iran, which we've discussed just recently, their Islamic Revolution worked. The people used a limited amount of direct force, but their presence was so overwhelming that there was really no way that the government was going to be able to put them all down.

Now, of course, this was successful, but it caused an invasion against them. If we look to the Bolshevik Revolution, of course this was highly successful. The Bolsheviks were able to destroy the White Army. They were able to take out the Czar and replace that government with a Communist government rather than a monarchical one. Of course, doing this almost cost Russia most of its territory because they signed it away in a peace treaty in World War I in order to not be taken over completely by the Germans as they fought internally. If we look to the European Revolutions of 1848, which we talked about, mostly these failed, so there were dozens of these revolutions that actually occurred simultaneously, but were not well coordinated.

There were a few successes to these. The Netherlands adopted a parliamentary democracy instead of monarchy, so that was a success. Denmark went from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one. Austrian-Hungary abolished Serfdom, but these revolutions occurred across all of Europe. Most of them were completely put down and monarchies continued to reign for decades to come. Of course, if we look at the Maoist Revolution in China, that was highly successful, though again very bloody. Then we can look at the Arab Spring Revolutions in Libya, Syria and Bahrein. These all failed. It turns out, peaceful demonstrations worked in places like Tunisia. Egypt also had peaceful demonstrations that led to the army taking out the dictatorship there, but their success was mixed. It turns out it was replaced with just another dictator.

Xander Snyder: In the case of citizens v. government violence, the results can be mixed. Frequently, the implementation of this violence does not achieve its aims. Sometimes they result in reactionary purges. They very frequently result in circumstances that are very disastrous for the economy, for the political system, for society as a whole. They're very deadly.

Now we're going to move on to the next category. This is the one we really wanted to focus on, citizens versus citizens. We're going to dig in some more historical examples first, but we'll come back to the modern day at the end, don't worry. A time period that's near and dear to our hearts is the end of the Roman Republic. We talk about the fall of the Republic, about the last 100 years of what happened, how it's relevant to what's going on today in our third episode. It's called Demagogues in History... and Today. We'll also put this up in the show notes.

This is relevant because this is really when intra-Roman political violence became normalized and that cycled downwards. It turned into a deadly cycle that couldn't be broken until civil war after civil war essentially broke the institutions that had held the Republic together for 500 years. This started off as factional street fighting, almost like gangs between these two groups called the Populares, which were kind of like the average guys group, the populists, the Optimates, which supported the aristocracy. This led to some really dramatic back and forth swings where one party would take power by force and then the other would take power by force. The Populares wanted a government that was more for the people, but don't get me wrong, the party was still run by aristocrats, even though they were attempting to establish their power base by appealing to a greater citizenry, whereas the Optimates really stuck to supporting and derived their power from the old order, the aristocracy and the Senate.

This group of folks named the triumvirates set out to solve this dilemma through joined rule. The triumvirate, the first triumvirate, was a guy named Julius Caesar. You might have heard of him. There was another guy named Gnaeus Pompey, Pompey the Great. He was a famous general in the Roman Republic, a very successful general up until he had to start facing Julius Caesar in battle. Then a third guy named Crassus, who was the richest guy in Rome, who when he actually tried to become a general, failed miserably at the Battle of Carrhae. In 52 BC, political violence had already become a norm. There had already been one massive civil between Marius and Sulla.

Street fighting was breaking out between different factions in Rome. In 49 BC, Julius Caesar, who had been fighting up in Gaul, conquering the territories and subjecting massive amounts of people, his bluff had basically been called by the Senate. He realized that the only way he could keep in good standing and not be persecuted by the aristocracy was to march on Rome, so when you hear the phrase "Crossing the Rubicon," this is Julius Caesar in 49 BC taking his army, and armies back then were loyal to generals and not the state, usually. He crossed this river.

This was a big deal because the one rule that he existed in Rome that really maintained some degree of stability in the city was that military forces were kept out of Rome, so when Caesar crossed the Rubicon, this was really the first time in the history of the Roman Republic when this rule was broken, and he occupied Rome with his military. This was the death nail of the Republic. Romans lost faith in the system, in the institutions that had existed in the Republic, but they largely supported Caesar's role as dictator because he was a Populare and he was for them. He was not part of the Optimates. He was not part of the group that was supporting the establishment, so even when he declared himself dictator for life, he generally had support of the people.

Later, Pompey the Great returned from Greece and waged a full scale civil war against Julius Caesar to attempt to break his hold on the city. Pompey lost, but in losing and in Caesar's victory, Caesar ended up dismantling the Republic. He consolidated all of the power that had existed in the institutions in the Republic into a single position, dictator for life himself. While he won, ultimately the aristocracy rose up against him, murdering him in the Senate, and yet another civil war broke out.

Erik Fogg: So the Roman Republic is a great case where the Populares and the Optimates used escalating forms of political violence from punching, to occasionally killing each other, to killing each other quite a lot in order to gain dominance in Rome, but they continued to go back and forth. Neither was ultimately squashed until Caesar showed up with a giant army and was able to use that massive overwhelming organized force behind a single general in order to exert control.

We can fast forward quite a bit to probably my favorite example, the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany. The reason this is my favorite example is because when people talk about punching Nazis, we actually have an historical example of literally punching Nazis, and how well did it work, right? Even before Hitler rose to power in 1933, there were a lot of people that were very worried about him. The whole Nationalist-Socialist thing didn't even sound that great before the whole, "Let's invade Russia. That'll go great. Let's murder six million people. That's a great idea." Even before that, people were quite worried. Many of these people that were very worried were the Communists.

Why were the Nationalists, Socialists and Communists doing so well? That's because Germany was doing very, very poorly. It had gotten hit really, really hard during the Great Depression and it came at just the worst time because Germany was still reeling from World War I and still reeling from the reparations it had pay. It was in crisis mode and extremist groups were rising up on both the left and the right. There were a number of elections between 1931 and 1932, three of them to be exact. Before each of those elections, there was a whole lot of street fighting particularly between the far-left and the far-right. Each of them saw the other as an incredible threat to the country, and obviously each of them saw each other as a very staunch opposition to their own political ideology.

Citizens engaged in a lot of street fights that became increasingly organized throughout those three elections. Of course, the Nazis successfully organized many of their own thugs into these brown shirts who went around thumping people on the head. Famously, they didn't actually carry sharp blades because that wasn't allowed. Many of the Communists did and many of them ended up in jail for it. As it turns out, throughout all three of these elections, both the Communists and the Nazis did pretty well. Either of their attempts to punch the other one into submission totally failed.

The depth of this chaos can be illustrated by a famous poster that I saw first in the German national history museum in Berlin. We're posting it on in this show post, of course, but for those of you who can't see it, it's this massive chasm with Communists and Nazis running around and punching each other. The word "chaos" is written on their flags, and above the chaotic chasm is this bridge and it says "Zentrum" which means center. There was this appeal by the Center party to say, "These guys are crazy. They're running around sowing chaos, fighting in the streets, ruining the country. Vote for us instead" but it turns out that this ongoing chaos actually fueled people's fear and their need for an extreme solution to get the country back under control.

It made them crave law and order, and it made them crave someone who was going to promise it, and so Hitler was able to get into power in part due to the chaos that was in the streets. Because the country was so divided and fractured, the government couldn't form a governing coalition. People saw that they couldn't deal with the economy, and in particular people didn't trust their neighbors anymore due to the street violence. Because of this, the more centrist governing forces in Germany allowed Hitler to take power as chancellor even though he didn't have a majority in the parliament. Once he took power as chancellor, that's when everything went downhill. Then the political violence that was necessary to stop the Nazis years later required the deaths of tens of millions of people.

Xander Snyder: Yeah, so I think an interesting pattern that emerges from the discussion on citizen v. citizen violence is that it very frequently results in chaos that then someone can take advantage of, and frequently this works very much counter to the intentions that people instigating the violence, who fervently want to maintain some degree of order.

A couple of weeks ago, at the behest of our dear friend Heather Teysko over at the Renaissance English Podcast, I read a Shakespeare monologue from a play on Thomas More. There's a line that comes to mind here, which is, "That you sit as kings in your desires, authority quite silent by your brawl, and you in ruff of your opinions clothed; what had you got? I'll tell you: you had taught how insolence and strong hand should prevail, how order should be quelled; and by this pattern not one of you should live an aged man, for other ruffians, as their fancies wrought, with self same hand, self reasons, and self right, would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes would feed on one another."

So you may attempt initially, or people may attempt initially to instigate this political violence in order to maintain some degree of stability to prevent ideas that they see as dangerous from coming into the public sphere, but very frequently this just devolves into chaos that then someone like Hitler can take advantage of.

Erik Fogg: The other way of looking at it that people have discussed in the Nazi punching discussions that have been going on the internet is, but what happens when the Nazis start punching back?

Xander Snyder: Yeah, right, because punching people who disagree with you is almost always going to get them to go, "Yeah, you're probably right. I should stop saying and believing in what I think," right?

Erik Fogg: Or even if you're not right, "Man, now I'm scared and I should definitely just keep my head down here, and not retreat into the corners of Reddit and spread my hateful ideology there." The most frustrating argument I've heard in favor of punching Nazis rather than talking to them is that people say, "Look. You know, these people are frightening people. I mean, you can't, you can't feel safe having a conversation with them" so the alternative is picking a fight with them.

Xander Snyder: This is one way in which citizen on citizen violence can spiral out of control. Now government on citizens violence is different because there is an established power base. There are structures and intuitions with which the state can yield power, which citizens don't have access to, so this is a distinction between the two types of political violence.

Erik Fogg: Yeah, the other distinction being that the state typically has a well-organized army with lots and lots of guns, and when it decides to use it, it has the capacity to just go kill enough people to put it all down, whereas punching people has the unfortunate consequence of making them angry without actually getting rid of them.

Xander Snyder: Exactly. There's one more example of citizen on citizen violence that we wanted to bring into the discussion, and we've talked a lot about the French Revolution on this show. I think the fact that the French Revolution has fit into three different categories of political violence that we've outlined is just evidence of the fact that it was an enormously chaotic period of time driven by extraordinarily complicated political and social and economic circumstances. The latter part of the French Revolution is a bit of a tricky one. You'll note that the beginning part was not so much a violent uprising by the people against the government. It started off more as a peaceful assembly by the Third Estate to oppose what the monarchy was doing.

As the Republican government became saddled with dealing with the famine that really was just due to natural circumstances, causing bread prices to rise, the Parisian revolutionary communes began using violent force to compel the assembly to take on its own agenda and this led to increased violence in Paris. Other counter-revolts sprung up in response to the minority Parisian sans culottes dictating policy via force and this spun out of control.

Erik Fogg: Yeah. As the spiral of violence increased, the Jacobins, who were in power at the time and were allied with the sans culottes, instituted the Reign of Terror in order to eliminate these internal threats that had been jumping up in response to the sans culottes using violence to dictate policy. The sans culottes, of course, weren't alone. Many of the images that are most iconic of the French Revolution besides topless liberty running around with the tricolor are sans culottes running around with aristocrats' heads on pikes. They weren't always aristocrats. There is actually a very interesting Marxist strain of history that frames the French Revolution as the poor rising up against the rich much like the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, but in fact it was actually a lot more complex than that.

To a large extent, the sans culottes were murdering people who held a different ideology and wanted a different outcome in the French Revolution. In short, the sans culottes formed mobs, and attacked aristocrats and people that they decided were counter-revolutionary. Lots and lots of people, of course, died not just to the guillotine in this organized way, but in this disorganized mob violence. This violence actually led to a Thermidorian Reaction, which was a conservative force that took back over power in order to get a lid on things. These guys had a counter-purge called the White Terror, which they tried to kill a whole lot of the more radical revolutionaries, including a lot of the sans culottes. As they said about the French Revolution, "The Revolution ate its own children."

Within the Thermidorian Reaction, the Directory, which was now the supreme executive force due to the chaos within and without France, and its supporters tried to consolidate power and restore order, and finally all of this, kill off the opposition, but they also failed. Within this chaos our helpful friend Napoleon rolls in with an army to put a lid on it all once and for all, not taking the side of the sans culottes, not taking the side of the more conservative Thermidorians, not taking the side of the enlightened liberals who kicked things off in the first place, but rolling in Napoleon style, putting down the law as he saw fit.

Xander Snyder: For freedom and liberty.

Erik Fogg: Freedom, yeah.

Xander Snyder: Each of these was an attempt by the citizens to use some form of violence in order to intimidate one or more political groups. I think it's worth noting how all of these ended. Generally, opposition was not suppressed by citizen on citizen violence. Each of these cases resulted in a spiral of violence that only made the circumstances worse for the entire society and they ended when a powerful dictator came in with an army and with an organized system of arms and power that could restore order.

Erik Fogg: Often the case for using violence as a political tool is a case made out of a sense of justice. I've heard arguments that opposing violence as a political tool, it's statist, it's fascist, it's racist. These people that were using violence against, they're bad, that you can't win them over. They're beyond the pale. We're out of options. What we've learned from history is that none of these arguments matter if your goal is to win. If your goal is to cause chaos and eventually the dictator that you are trying to prevent from taking power, taking power, great. Go for it. But historically citizen on citizen violence has not accomplished the aims of the citizens who have initiated that violence. Often it's also the case that these citizens who are first on the receiving end and then joined in the fray also don't accomplish their aims.

Other forms of political violence, as we've seen, can be more successful. If you're a government trying to suppress the politics of its own people with violence, you can use overwhelming force and a whole lot of political murder to successfully suppress a political group. It's very brutal, but it's very thorough. If you're a citizen group trying to change the ideology of your current government through violence, it's very dicey. It often ends in dictatorships. Always a lot of people die. The country gets chewed up pretty bad. Of course, if you're a government trying to impose a new ideology on a different government, that's also pretty chancy. Luckily for you, you're generally fighting a war in someone else's territory unless, like in the case of revolutionary France, they get tired of your crap and decide to come after you instead.

All in all, excepting in the case of a really motivated government willing to murder a lot of people, it's really, really hard, dare I say dicey, to try to eliminate the significant presence of an alternative political ideology no matter how horrifying using the violence, and historically the method that has worked worst has been citizen on citizen violence.

Xander Snyder: So why do this show? Why talk about historical examples of political violence? I think as Erik and I read about what's been going on recently and how people have been talking about "punching Nazis," this struck us because on a visceral level — I say this a lot — rhetoric matters. When you talk about fighting back against a category of political ideology that you generally associate with really horrible things, that has the potential to just fuel good, right? Nazis, they're bad, therefore fight what's bad, therefore good, right? Done deal.

Erik Fogg: Yeah. I mean, Captain America and Indiana Jones both punch Nazis. What couldn't be more American than punching Nazis?

Xander Snyder: Harrison Ford would be proud. The thing of course is, what consequences usually result from this action? As we thought about it, we didn't think of a lot of good things. You can categorize punching Nazis under this broader umbrella of citizen on citizen violence, and very frequently this results in circumstances that are, well, more violent for the rest of society. I'm not going to ascribe a value judgment to that. Maybe there's people out there that think that this is a good thing and that you actually do need to confront violently ideas that you consider to be malevolent regardless of the consequences, but we think it's important to know what the consequences frequently have been. That's why we wanted to talk about political violence. Wrapping up today, we'd like to again remind you that if you have a moment, please do leave us a review on your favorite pod-catcher, iTunes to Google Play, What Cast, what have you.

Erik Fogg: Remember also, a buck-a-show is our Dan Carlin model on Patreon. We'd love to be able to keep doing this, spread the message even further. You can find us on

Xander Snyder: Social media, we be on the social media, Twitter and Facebook, @reconsiderpod. You can also sign up for our newsletter at, where we will send you an email whenever we get a new podcast episode out or whenever a new article comes out. With that, I would like to remind everyone, don't let the pundits do the thinking for you. Remember to pause and reconsider. This is Xander signing off.

Erik Fogg: Yes, and remember, don't let internet memes do the thinking for you either. This is Erik signing off. Stay good, guys.