Hey, did you know that....
The term nihilism comes from the Latin word 'nihil' which literally means "nothing." Many believe that it was originally coined by Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons (1862) when in fact it probably first appeared several decades earlier. Nevertheless, Turgenev's use of the word to describe the views he attributed to young intellectual critics of feudal society generally and the Tsarist regime in particular is what gave the word widespread popularity.
This usage came at a fortuitous time because there was a burgeoning radical movement that seem to fit that term quite well — at least as far as conservatives were concerned. They were perhaps the first to latch onto the word, using it as a slur to describe a generation that was in revolt against established social norms.
These youth themselves were not eager to adopt the term, but it eventually came into general usage.
This Russian Nihilism would have seemed very familiar to anyone who lived through the 1960s in America. It was largely a youth movement comprised of a new intellectual class that was growing rapidly due to increased attendance at schools by commoners, increased wealth in the middle class, and the development of independent presses.
The result was a "culture war" with an older generation that felt a stronger allegiance to traditional norms, traditional religion, and traditional morality. Against these "Fathers" were arrayed the "Sons," children who no longer believed in the ideals of their elders, were disillusioned at the hypocrisy around them, and feared that any attempt to improve things would only be in vain.
As one might expect, the more the young Russian Nihilists were pushed into conforming to tradition, the more they pushed back — acting out in crude or vulgar ways, expressing contempt for traditional values, opposing religious authority, etc. Some attempted to change society through political action, but most were disillusioned with politics and "dropped out," preferring instead to seek greater personal development through a complete break with the past. It was these latter individuals who perhaps most merit the label Nihilists — apolitical youth who shared much in common with Turgenev's character Bazarov.
Ultimately, Russian Nihilism didn't accomplish much itself — it certainly didn't produce general cultural and political changes anywhere close to what was created by the 1960s youth movements in America and Europe. The problem, it seems, is that the radical cultural and political critiques were not well-balanced by an equally strong program of alternatives. Basically, the Nihilists had little or nothing to offer in exchange for what they hoped to tear down. Some certainly tried, but there just weren't enough to effectively strengthen the movement.
This is not to say, however, that Russian Nihilism left no mark whatsoever. Its emphasis on materialism as opposed to idealism probably helped pave the way for the later ascendancy of communism. It is also reasonable to conclude that the critiques of traditional culture helped Russians to shed past prejudices and assumptions, even if they didn't embrace the Nihilist philosophy entirely.
There is a common misconception that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was a nihilist. You can find this assertion in both popular and academic literature, yet as widespread as it it, it isn't really an accurate portrayal of his work. Nietzsche wrote a great deal about nihilism, it is true, but that was because he was concerned about the effects of nihilism on society and culture, not because he advocated nihilism.
Even that, though, is perhaps a bit too simplistic. The question of whether Nietzsche really advocated nihilism or not is largely dependent upon the context: Nietzsche's philosophy is a moving target because he had so many different things to say on so many different subjects, and not all of what he wrote is perfectly consistent with everything else.
Nietzsche could be categorized as a nihilist in the descriptive sense that he believed that there was no longer any real substance to traditional social, political, moral, and religious values. He denied that those values had any objective validity or that they imposed any binding obligations upon us. Indeed, he even argued that they could at times have negative consequence for us.
We could also categorize Nietzsche as a nihilist in the descriptive sense that he saw that many people in society around him were effectively nihilists themselves. Many, if not most, probably wouldn't admit to it, but Nietzsche saw that the old values and old morality simply didn't have the same power that they once did. It is here that he announced the "death of God," arguing that the traditional source of ultimate and transcendental value, God, no longer mattered in modern culture and was effectively dead to us.
Describing nihilism isn't the same as advocating nihilism, so is there any sense in which Nietzshe did the latter? As a matter of fact, he could be described as a nihilist in a normative sense because he regarded the "death of God" as being ultimately a good thing for society. As mentioned above, Nietzsche believed that traditional moral values, and in particular those stemming from traditional Christianity, were ultimately harmful to humanity. Thus, the removal of their primary support should lead to their downfall — and that could only be a good thing.
It is here, however, that Nietzsche parts company from nihilism. Nihilists look at the death of God and conclude that, without any perfect source of absolute, universal, and transcendent values, then there can be no real values at all. Nietzsche, however, argues that the lack of such absolute values does not imply the absence of any values at all.
On the contrary, by freeing himself from the chains tying him to a single perspective normally attributed to God, Nietzsche is able to give a fair hearing to the values of many different and even mutually exclusive perspectives. In so doing, he can conclude that these values are "true" and appropriate to those perspectives, even if they may be inappropriate and invalid to other perspectives. Indeed, the great "sin" of both Christian values and Enlightenment values is, at least for Nietzsche, the attempt to pretend that they are universal and absolute rather than situated in some particular set of historical and philosophical circumstances.
Nietzsche can actually be quite critical of nihilism, although that is not always recognized. In Will to Power we can find the following comment: "Nihilism is…not only the belief that everything deserves to perish; but one actually puts one shoulder to the plough; one destroys." It is true that Nietzsche put his shoulder to the plough of his philosophy, tearing through many cherished assumptions and beliefs.
Once again, though, he parts company with nihilists in that he did not argue that everything deserves to be destroyed. He was not simply interested in tearing down traditional beliefs based upon traditional values; instead, he also wanted to help build new values. He pointed in the direction of a "superman" who might be able to construct his own set of values independent of what anyone else thought.
Nietzsche was certainly the first philosopher to study nihilism extensively and to try and take its implications seriously, yet that doesn't mean that he was a nihilist in the sense that most people mean by the label. He may have taken nihilism seriously, but only as part of an effort to provide an alternative to the Void that it offered.
It is true that early Russian Nihilism had a strong apolitical streak and that later nihilistic philosophies also tended to be apolitical in nature; nevertheless, even Russian Nihilism also contained a very strong element of political activism. Those who argued against the reality of traditional morality and authority also often argued that the social structures which served to uphold morality and authority should be taken down, by force if necessary.
Although nihilism is often associated with a generally depressing and fatalistic attitude about life, that doesn't accurately describe the perspective of political nihilists. Although it is true that their opinion about prevailing social and political structures was very negative, they were were nevertheless quite optimistic about the possibilities for the future.
Indeed, they were very future-oriented, believing that taking apart both past and current values was necessary for the creation of a positive future.
This optimistic perspective may best be found in a statement by the Russian anarchist Bakunin, who wrote as early as 1842 that "the negation of what exists ... for the benefit of the future which does not exist" is the primary theme of nihilist politics. Perhaps the most succinct expression of the nihilistic program of what needs to be done in society was summed up in a statement by the leading Russian Nihilist Dmitri Pisarev:
"Here is the ultimatum of our camp. What can be smashed must be smashed; whatever will stand the blow is sound, what flies into smithereens is rubbish; at any rate, hit out right and left, no harm will or can come of it."
For obvious reasons this sort of nihilism shares a great deal in common with the political philosophy most commonly known today as anarchism. Indeed, some argue that the Latin nihil can be accurate translated into the Greek anarche, although the Greek midenismos would seem more appropriate. Regardless of how one views the technical translation question, it remains true that this political nihilism and modern anarchism are close relatives, if not essentially the same thing.
Both seek the elimination of false systems of morality, authority, and government, all of which only serve to limit human freedom and perpetuate repression in the name of things like tradition or religion. The solutions proposed by nihilists, like those proposed by anarchists, might be violent or they might not — and in both cases it has been the most violent solutions and groups which tend to be most closely identified with the label, thus leading to unnecessary misunderstandings about the position and prejudice on the part of the general public.
As nihilism spread beyond Russia, it generally lost its revolutionary and anarchist overtones, becoming much more apolitical than it even was within Russia. This may be largely due to the fact that the political and social situation in Europe and the Americas wasn't nearly so bad as that in Russia at the time.
Like anarchism, nihilism has been unjustly regarded as a violent and even terroristic philosophy. Unjust as it may be, though, it is true that nihilism has been used in support of violence and many early nihilists were violent revolutionaries. The connection between nihilism and violence may not be necessary and inherent, but it is historical.
Russian Nihilists rejected that traditional political, ethical, and religious norms had any validity or binding force on them. They did not advocate simply the destruction of society, however; instead, they argued that by tearing down the invalid social structures of old, they would be able to establish a new and better society.
Those Russian Nihilists who were politically involved at first tried to make their case intellectually, publishing pamphlets about their ideas and urging others to throw off the chains of the past.
Unfortunately, Russia at this time was ill-suited for such efforts. Most of the peasants couldn't even read in the first place, and the Nihilist propaganda only really appealed to the students and intellectual classes anyway.
If talking was not a feasible option for social revolution, then violence was the next choice. The primary object of revolutionary violence was the Czar, the symbol of hereditary privilege, political power, and even religious authority in Russia. Several attempts were made on the life of Czar Alexander II — he escaped a gun shot fired by Demetrius Karakozov on April 4, 1866, an attempt to wreck a train he was riding, and an attack in February, 1880. Finally, he was killed by a bomb thrown by Grineveckij on March 1, 1891.
The Nihilists were too few in number to pose a real threat to the stability of Russian society, but their violence was obviously a threat to the lives of those in power. General Strelnikov was assassinated at Odessa in 1882. The new Czar, Alexander III, had a number of attempts made on his life as well. Therefore, the Russian authorities engaged in extensive efforts to shut them down and jail the leaders. At one mass trial in 1877, 193 persons were charged but 94 were ultimately acquitted.
Czar Alexander III continued the reactionary efforts but it wasn't too long before the Nihilist movement simply ran out of steam. It wasn't popular with the masses of the people, so jailing and otherwise silencing various Nihilist leaders often went a long way towards achieving the political goals of the Russian leaders.
This is not to say, however, that the Russian Nihilists had no impact at all. Their emphasis on materialism as opposed to idealism probably helped pave the way for the later ascendancy of communism. It is also reasonable to conclude that the critiques of traditional culture helped Russians to shed past prejudices and assumptions, even if they didn't embrace the Nihilist philosophy entirely. Finally, the Nihilist willingness to resort to violence, like political assassination, in the pursuit of political and social goals may have also played a role in the similar willingness on the part of Russian Communists just a couple of decades later.
Philosophers who adopt this position are also sometimes known as "antifoundationalists," so-called because they argue against the existence of absolute and objective "foundations" or "metanarratives" that structure our thinking, our reason, and our values. Although we may think that we have very good reasons for adopting our positions, we cannot argue that we have objective reasons for those positions — our "truths" are merely constructions, transitory in nature and ready to be abandoned as soon as something better comes along. At no point are our "truths" valid in any transcendental or transcultural way — they can only apply to us, in our particular circumstances and time.
American philosopher Richard Rorty makes this point when he wrote in "From Logic to Language to Play" that "Nothing grounds our practices, nothing legitimizes them, nothing shows them to be in touch with the way things are." The response to such objective meaninglessness is to adopt a cheerful, or at least a very determined, nihilism which accepts that meaningless on its own terms and works to construct personal, subjective meanings which allow us to live.
Contrary to Derrida's assertion, it does not seem very obvious that the absence of truth and values is a death-blow to the possibility of totalitarianism. Just the opposite seems to be the case, in fact, because without any external standards we can use for evaluating ideas and settling disagreements, then the only solution when faced with more than one option is raw power. After all, none of the options are really "better" and none rely more upon "truth" than any other.
So there is nothing genuinely wrong with one of those views from taking power by force and being imposed by force, even if it isn't "true." This, it can be argued, is quite compatible with Nietzsche's argument that all interpretations of our world are driven not so much by a desire to simply and accurately describe matters of fact, but rather a will-to-power over ourselves, our world, and even others around us.
Like nihilism and existentialism, the idea of "Death of God Theology" is not so much a coherent school of philosophy as it is a trend or mood in modern theology. It argues that there needs to be a transformation from a Christian to a "post-Christian" theology. This theology is supposed to be, in the words of F. Thomas Trotter, "anti-metaphysical, earnestly moral, and hopefully secular."
What would become a slogan was originally a metaphor. In The Joyful Science, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about a man wandering in search of God, who finally says:
"Where has God gone? I shall tell you. We have killed him — you and I. We are all his murderers... God is dead. That which was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives.
There has never been a greater deed."
Nietzsche's philosophy is in many ways based upon the idea of the death of god — because there is no god, there are no transcendent values, no transcendent morals, and no transcendent purpose. Religions like Christianity only serve to keep some people in power over other people and to weaken us, preventing us from creating out own values, morals and purpose. When a person is able to break free of repressive systems and assumptions, he has the chance to become an übermensch.
This was the starting point for "Death of God Theology," a movement which was popular among some theologians during the 1960s and 70s. Developed from the work of people like Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich, it was argued that the notion of a personal God was simply outdated and irrelevant in a modern, technologically and scientifically advanced society. They did not become Nietzscheans, although a few did adopt the label "Christian atheists."
One of the first works which can be counted as standing explicitly in this new tradition was Honest to God, written in 1963 by John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich. In it, he argued that there was not God "out there" but rather one which is really the "ground of all being." Because traditional theism had become both irrelevant and incoherent, it was necessary to develop theological and religious beliefs which would apply to the modern world. In particular, they argued that Christianity itself needed to undergo significant changes.
A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.
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In October of 1966, in Oakland California, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The Panthers practiced militant self-defense of minority communities against the U.S. government, and fought to establish revolutionary socialism through mass organizing and community based programs. The party was one of the first organizations in U.S. history to militantly struggle for ethnic minority and working class emancipation — a party whose agenda was the revolutionary establishment of real economic, social, and political equality across gender and color lines.
Black Panther Theory: The practices of the late Malcolm X were deeply rooted in the theoretical foundations of the Black Panther Party. Malcolm had represented both a militant revolutionary, with the dignity and self-respect to stand up and fight to win equality for all oppressed minorities; while also being an outstanding role model, someone who sought to bring about positive social services; something the Black Panthers would take to new heights. The Panthers followed Malcolm's belief of international working class unity across the spectrum of color and gender, and thus united with various minority and white revolutionary groups. From the tenets of Maoism they set the role of their Party as the vanguard of the revolution and worked to establish a united front, while from Marxism they addressed the capitalist economic system, embraced the theory of dialectical materialism, and represented the need for all workers to forcefully take over the means of production.
Black Panther History: On April 25th, 1967, the first issue of The Black Panther, the party's official news organ, goes into distribution. In the following month, the party marches on the California state capital fully armed, in protest of the state's attempt to outlaw carrying loaded weapons in public. Bobby Seale reads a statement of protest; while the police respond by immediately arresting him and all 30 armed Panthers. This early act of political repression kindles the fires to the burning resistance movement in the United States; soon initiating minority workers to take up arms and form new Panther chapters outside the state.
In October of 1967, the police arrest the Defense Minister of the Panthers, Huey Newton, for killing an Oakland cop. Panther Eldridge Cleaver begins the movement to "Free Huey", a struggle the Panthers would devote a great deal of their attention to in the coming years, while the party spreads its roots further into the political spectrum, forming coalitions with various revolutionary parties. Stokely Carmichael, the former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and a nationally known proponent of Black Power, is recruited into the party through this struggle, and soon becomes the party's Prime Minister in February, 1968. Carmichael is adamantly against allowing whites into the black liberation movement, explaining whites cannot relate to the black experience and have an intimidating effect on blacks; a position that stirs opposition within the Panthers. Carmichael explains: "Whites who come into the black community with ideas of change seem to want to absolve the power structure of its responsibility for what it is doing, and say that change can only come through black unity, which is the worst kind of paternalism..... If we are to proceed toward true liberation, we must cut ourselves off from white people..... [otherwise] we will find ourselves entwined in the tentacles of the white power complex that controls this country."
In the beginning of 1968, after selling Mao's Red Book to university students in order to buy shotguns, the Party makes the book required reading. Meanwhile, the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, begins a program called COINTELPRO (counterintelligence program) to break up the spreading unity of revolutionary groups that had begun solidifying through the work and examaple of the Panthers — the Peace and Freedom Party, Brown Berets, Students for a Democratic Society, the SNCC, SCLC, Poor People's March, Cesar Chavez and others in the farm labor movement, the American Indian Movement, Young Puerto Rican Brothers, the Young Lords and many others. To destroy the party, the FBI begins with a program of surgical assassinations — killing leading members of the party who they know cannot be otherwise subverted. Following these mass killings would be a series of arrests, followed by a program of psychological warfare, designed to split the party both politically and morally through the use of espionage, provocatures, and chemical warfare.
U.S. Police Terror and Repression
On April 6, 1968, in West Oakland, Bobby Hutton, 17 years old, is shot dead by Oakland police. In a 90 minute gun battle, an unarmed Bobby Hutton is shot ten times dead, after his house is set ablaze and he is forced to run out into a fire of bullets. Just two days earlier, Martin Luther King is assasinated, after he had begun rethinking his own doctrines of non-violence, and started to build ties with radical unions. Two months later on the day of Bobby's death, Robert Kennedy, widely recognised in the minority commmunity as one of the only politicians in the US "sympathetic" to the civil rights movement, is also assasinated.
In January, 1969, The first Panther's Free Breakfast for School Children Program is initiated at St. Augustine's Church in Oakland. By the end of the year, the Panthers set up kitchens in cities across the nation, feeding over 10,000 children every day before they went to school.
A few months later, J. Edgar Hoover publicly states that the Panthers are the "greatest threat to the internal security of the country".
In Chicago, the outstanding leader of the Panthers local, Fred Hampton, leads five different breakfast programs on the West Side, helps create a free medical center, and initiates a door to door program of health services which test for sickle cell anemia, and encourage blood drives for the Cook County Hospital. The Chicago party also begins reaching out to local gangs to clean up their acts, get them away from crime and bring them into the class war. The Parties efforts meet wide success, and Hampton's audiences and organised contingent grow by the day. On December 4th, at 4:00 a.m. in the morning, thanks to information from an FBI informant , Chicago police raid the Panthers' Chicago apartment, murdering Fred Hampton while he sleeps in bed. He is shot twice in the head, once in the arm and shoulder; while three other people sleeping in the same bed escape unharmed. Mark Clark, sleeping in the living room chair, is also murdered while asleep. Hampton's wife, carrying child for 8 months, is also shot, but survives. Four panthers sleeping in the apartment are wounded, while one other escapes injury . Fred Hampton was 21 years old when he was executed, Mark was 17 years old. According to the findings of the federal grand jury, Ninety bullets were fired inside the apartment. 1 came from a Panther — Mark — who slept with a shotgun in his hand. All surviving Panther members were arrested for "attempted murder of the police and aggravated assault". Not a single cop spent a moment in jail for the executions.
In the summer of 1969, the alliance between the Panthers and SNCC begins ripping apart. One of the main points of dispute is the inclusion of whites in the struggle for minority liberation, a dispute which is pushed into an open gun fight at the University of California in Los Angeles against the group US, led by Maulana Karenga, which leaves two Panthers dead. In September, in the government's court house, Huey Newton is convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 2 to 15 years in prison; by 1970 the conviction is appealed and overturned on procedural errors. On November 24, 1968, Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver flee the US, visit Cuba and Paris, and eventually settle in Algeria. Earlier in the year Cleaver published his famous book Soul on Ice. By the end of the year, the party has swelled from 400 members to over 5,000 members in 45 chapters and branches, with a newspaper circulation of 100,000 copies.
In 1969 Seale is indicted in Chicago for protesting during the Democratic national convention of last year. The court refuses to allow Seale to choose a lawyer. As Seale repeatedly stands up during the show trial insisting that he is being denied his constitutional right to counsel, the judge orders him bound and gagged. He is convicted on 16 counts of contempt and sentenced to four years in prison. While in jail he would be charged again for killing a cop in years past, a trial that would end in 1971 with a hung jury.
In March, 1970, Bobby Seale publishes Seize The Time while still being held in prison, the story of the Panthers and Huey Newton. On April 2, 1970, in New York, 21 Panthers are charged with plotting to assassinate police officers and blow up buildings. On May 22nd, Eight members, including Ericka Huggins, are arrested on a variety of conspiracy and murder charges in New Haven, Connecticut. Meanwhile, Chief of staff David Hilliard is on trial for threatening President Richard Nixon. The party does little to separate its legal and illegal aspects, and is thus always and everywhere under attack by the government. In 1971, the Panther's newspaper circulation reaches 250,000.
On Huey Newton's release from prison, he devotes more effort to further develop the Panther's socialist survival programs in black communities; programs that provided free breakfasts for children, established free medical clinics, helped the homeless find housing, and gave away free clothing and food.
FBI forgery, provacation, & chemical war
In March, 1970, the FBI begins to soe seeds of factionalism in the Black Panthers, in part by forging letters to members. Eldridge Cleaver is one of their main targets — living in exile in Algiers — they gradually convince him with a steady stream of misinformation that the BPP leadership is trying to remove him from power. Cleaver recieved stacks of forgered FBI letters from supposed party members, criticising Netwon's leadership, and asking for Cleaver to take control. An example of such a forged letter, written using the name of Connie Matthews, Newton's personal secretary:
I know you have not been told what has been happening lately.... Things around headquarters are dreadfully disorganized with the comrade commander not making proper decisions. The newspaper is in a shambles. No one knows who is in charge. The foreign department gets no support. Brothers and sisters are accused of all sorts of things...
I am disturbed because I, myself, do not know which way to turn.... If only you were here to inject some strength into the movement, or to give some advice. One of two steps must be taken soon and both are drastic. We must either get rid of the supreme commander or get rid of the disloyal members... Huey is really all we have right now and we can't let him down, reglardless of how poorly he is acting, unless you feel otherwise.
Cleaver receives similarly forged letters across the spectrum, from groups outside the Panthers, to Panthers themselves, from rank and file members to Elbert "Big Man" Howard, editor of the Black Panther. The split comes when Newton goes onto a T.V. talk show for an interview, with Cleaver on the phone in Algiers. Cleaver expresses his absolute disdain for what has happened to the party, demands that David Hilliard (Chief of Staff) be removed, and even attacks the breakfast program as reformist. Cleaver is expelled from the Central Committee, and starts up his own Black Liberation Army. In 1973, Seale runs for mayor of Oakland. Though he receives 40 percent of the vote, he is defeated.
The destroyed remnants of the party leadership
With such great struggles, seeing the party being ripped apart by factions and internal hatred, Huey, like many members, becomes disillusioned. He no longer wants to lead the party, though so many expect and demand otherwise, while he spins into a spiral of self-doubt. He becomes heavily dependent on cocaine, heroin, and others. It is not clear this was his own doing, and very probable the work of the FBI. Huey remarked in one of his public speeches in the 1980s, where he would often have spurts of his brilliant clarity but then become entirely incoherent and rambling, that he was killing himself by reactionary suicide, through the vices of drug addiction. On August 22, 1989, Newton is shot dead on the streets of Oakland in a drug dispute.
Bobby Seale resigns from the party; while Elaine Brown takes the lead in continuing the Panther community programs. In the fall of 1975, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver return from exile as born-again Christians. In 1979, all charges against Cleaver are dropped after he bargains with the state and pleads guilty to assault in a 1968 shoot out with the cops. He is put on five years probation. In the dimming years of his life, Cleaver assimilates a political outlook similar to Martin Luther King, engages in various business ventures, and becomes heavily addicted to cocaine.
By the beginning of the 1980s, attacks on the party and internal degradation and divisions, cause the party to fall apart. The leadership of the party had been absolutely smashed; its rank and file constantly terrorized by the police. Many remaining Panthers were hunted down and killed in the following years, imprisoned on trumped charges (Mumia Abu-Jamal, Sundiata Acoli, among many others), or forced to flee the United States (Assata Shakur, and others).
As Cleaver would later explain in an interview a year before his death: "As it was [the U.S. government] chopped off the head [of the Black liberation movement] and left the body there armed. That's why all these young bloods are out there now, they've got the rhetoric but are without the political direction... and they've got the guns."
Black Child's Pledge
I pledge allegiance to my Black People.
I pledge to develop my mind and body to the greatest extent possible.
I will learn all that I can in order to give my best to my People in their struggle for liberation.
I will keep myself physically fit, building a strong body free from drugs and other substances which weaken me and make me less capable of protecting myself, my family and my Black brothers and sisters.
I will unselfishly share my knowledge and understanding with them in order to bring about change more quickly.
I will discipline myself to direct my energies thoughtfully and constructively rather than wasting them in idle hatred.
I will train myself never to hurt or allow others to harm my Black brothers and sisters for I recognize that we need every Black Man, Woman, and Child to be physically, mentally and psychologically strong.
These principles I pledge to practice daily and to teach them to others in order to unite my People.
The Irish Republican Army and the armed struggle in Irish politics
There has always been a tradition of armed resistance to the British military and political occupation of Ireland. This tradition generally only found effective expression when after a period of non-armed agitation, large sections of the Irish people, faced with the British government's denial of the legitimate demand for Irish independence, exercised the right to use armed struggle.
This was the case with the organisation from which modern Irish republicans trace their origins - the United Irishmen of the 1790s. Inspired by the example of the American War of Independence and by the democratic ideals of the French Revolution, the United Irishmen sought to unite the people of Ireland in a common effort to achieve equality and freedom. Choosing initially non-violent means to win their aims, the United Irishmen quickly met with a repressive response from the British government. It was only then that they exercised their right as Irish people to defend their liberty by the use of arms. It was a pattern that was to be repeated several times in the next century and a half.
Armed uprisings against British rule took place in 1798, 1803, 1848 and 1867. The 45 years between 1803 and 1848 saw the Irish population mobilised in one of the first mass movements for political reform in the history of Europe. The demand for legislative independence for Ireland, though democratically expressed by the overwhelming majority of the people, was denied by the British government.
The Great Hunger of 1845-1852 saw a million people starve and a million more emigrate yet this catastrophe befell an unarmed people and there was only sporadic resistance. The ill-fated uprising of 1848 was localised and abortive.
The lessons of this period were not lost on succeeding generations of Irish patriots and the Fenian Movement of the late 1850s and 1860s won widespread support in Ireland and America for its programme of armed struggle to achieve an Irish Republic. The uprising of 1867 was crushed and another 49 years were to pass before Irish nationalists attempted an armed resistance.
Those 49 years witnessed the most intense period of Irish 'constitutional' agitation for independence. Waged through electoral politics and campaigns for land reform in Ireland, and by the Irish Party in the debating chamber in the British House of Commons, this struggle saw the overwhelming majority of the Irish people again express their desire for independence from Britain. But legislation for Home Rule - limited self-government within the British Empire - was defeated in the British parliament in 1886 and 1893.
Nevertheless another long period of parliamentarian agitation ensued which culminated in the support of the British Liberal government for Home Rule in 1911. Once again the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the Irish people were to be denied. The Conservative Party Opposition in the British Parliament joined with the anti-Home Rule forces in Ireland - the Unionists - to defeat the Liberal government's plans for Ireland. (To this day the Tory Party is officially known as the Conservative and Unionist Party.)
While at this time there was little organised support for armed insurrection by nationalists, the Unionists and Conservative organised the importation of arms illegally and pledged to resist Home Rule by force. The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was established in 1913. To their dismay nationalists saw leading members the Conservative Party and the British aristocracy openly threatening armed rebellion against what was supposedly their own democratically elected British government. This was being done to prevent even the limited legislative independence for which nationalists had been campaigning for several decades.
This was the background to the establishment of the organisation which was to become the Irish Republican Army. The Irish Volunteers - Oglaigh na hEireann in the Irish language - were established in November 1913 to ''secure and maintain the rights and liberties commonto all the people of Ireland''.
In 1914 the UVF was allowed to import arms unhindered by British crown forces; when the Liberal government made plans to use the British army, if necessary, against the UVF, senior officers mutinied and the Liberal government backed down. On the other hand when the Irish Volunteers imported a much smaller quantity of arms they were attacked by the crown forces who shot dead civilians on the streets of Dublin.
When the European War broke out later that year the leader of the Home Rule Party pledged the Irish Volunteers to fight on England's side. This split the Irish Volunteers, one section joining the British army and the other remaining independent and going on to plan an armed uprising during the war.
The Easter Rising of 1916 was the defining event in the history of Irish republicanism. Many would regard the Proclamation of the Republic issued then as the founding document of the IRA. It declared an independent Republic and pledged republicans to ''equal rights and equal opportunities'' for all the Irish people.The Easter Rising was crushed after a week. Sixteen of its leaders were executed by the British government.
By now the faith of nationalists in the Home Rule party had been completely undermined. They had seen years of parliamentary agitation thwarted by the threat of force; they had seen the Home Rule leaders acquiesce in British government plans to partition Ireland; they had seen thousands of young Irish nationalists killed in the trenches of France on the promise that their sacrifice would win Home Rule, while unionists who joined the British army were promised the opposite; they had seen the execution of the 1916 leaders. In 1918 they saw the threat of conscription being imposed in Ireland. By an overwhelming majority in the General Election of that year the Irish people voted for the Sinn Féin party which sought to establish an Irish Republic.
Reorganised in 1917 the Irish Volunteers had wide popular support. But it was not until well into 1919 that a widespread and effective guerrilla campaign began. Once again this occurred after the British government had spurned an opportunity to recognise the democratically expressed wishes of the Irish people.
In January 1919 Sinn Féin had established an independent Irish parliament - Dáil Eireann - and declared the sovereignty of Ireland as a Republic. They formed independent institutions including a functioning central government, ministerial departments and republican courts of law. The Irish Volunteers became the Army of the Republic, under the Ministry of Defence and pledging its allegiance to Dáil Eireann.
The response from the British government was to ban all these institutions and declare war on the new Irish democracy.
This period saw international revulsion at the campaign waged by British crown forces in Ireland. Three mayors of Irish cities, all members of the IRA, were killed by the British; martial law was declared through nearly half of the country; streets, shops and factories in many towns were burnt to the ground; there were executions in prisons and torture in internment camps. In response the IRA waged an increasingly effective guerrilla campaign against the crack troops of the British - the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans.
The guerrilla tactics used at this time - notably those of Tom Barry's Flying Column in Cork - later became textbook examples of this type of warfare. The popular Irish struggle, both in its civil and military side, inspired future anti-colonial struggles throughout the world.
On the basis of agreement by the British government to negotiate with Irish leaders - and with no question of a surrender of arms - the IRA called a Truce in July 1921. Subsequent negotiations produced a Treaty which split nationalist Ireland.
The IRA split in 1922 - as did Dáil Eireann. In the Civil War which followed the Irish Republican Army held out for the complete independence of Ireland from Britain and for a United Ireland. Their former comrades who formed the army of the new Free State (26 Counties) opposed them in a savage campaign which witnessed all the tragedy common to every civil war.
In May 1923 the Civil War ended with the IRA order to its Volunteers to dump arms.
Throughout the 1920s the IRA reorganised and once again attracted a wide following. The organisation played a key role in the election of the first government of the Fianna Fáil party - which had emerged from the IRA - under Eamon de Valera in 1932.
Throughout the 1930s the IRA sought a successful political and military strategy but this evaded the organisation as left/right divides in the ranks manifested themselves in splits and dissension. The short-lived Republican Congress of 1934 sought to give left-wing political expression to republican ideals. Among the Chiefs of Staff of the IRA in the 1930s was Sean MacBride, later a distinguished international human rights lawyer and winner of the Nobel and Lenin Peace Prizes.
In 1939 the IRA began a bombing campaign in English cities. This was effectively over by 1941, with relatively few attacks having occurred. With internment without trial introduced in both states in Ireland the IRA was at a low ebb during this period.
In 1949 in response to the British government's Ireland Act which reinforced partition all parties in the Irish parliament declared their unanimous opposition to partition. The same year the IRA issued an Order which forbade military action against the forces of the 26-County state. The early 1950s saw an anti-partition campaign conducted by Irish governments and supported by all parties in parliament. Its ineffectiveness in the face of the British government's indifference contributed to the renewal of the IRA.
In the early to mid 50s raids for arms were carried out by the IRA on British installations in the Six Counties and Britain. This was in preparation for an armed campaign which was conducted between 1956 and 1962. Mainly confined to border areas the campaign saw attacks on border posts and other British military installations.
After the border campaign ended the leadership of the IRA decided that support should be given to campaigns to highlight the status of second-class citizenship for nationalists in the Six Counties. The emergence of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1960s was to transform the political situation. Their demand for basic rights - to jobs, housing, voting - threw the Six-County state into a crisis. The peaceful demand for civil rights was met with violence from the forces of the sectarian state.
In Belfast and Derry in 1969 nationalist districts were attacked by the state police, the RUC, and by unionist mobs. The demand for defence made by nationalist communities could not be met initially by the IRA because, through the 1960s, the leadership had abandoned planning and preparation for a future armed campaign. As a military organisation the IRA had been run down.
The events of 1969 precipitated a split in the IRA. Once more the peaceful pursuit of change in the form of the Civil Rights Movement had been met with violence from the British state and so it was that the armed struggle gained predominance again as the republican strategy.
Through 1970 and 1971 the IRA gained increasing support in nationalist districts in the Six Counties and among nationalists throughout Ireland. This accelerated with the introduction of internment without trial in 1971. IRA Volunteers carried out a campaign of urban guerrilla warfare against the British army and economic bombings in Northern cities and towns.
In July 1972 republican leaders were flown to London for talks with British government ministers during a Truce between the IRA and the British army. It quickly became clear that the British government was simply using the Truce as a tactical device in its military campaign and the Truce broke down.
The conflict in the Six Counties intensified. In England the IRA caried out a bombing campaign. Another truce was called in 1974/'75 but once more there was no political will on the British part to reach a just political settlement.
In fact the most determined and consistent policy of successive British governments in the 1970s was counter-insurgency. Techniques perfected in other colonial wars were used in Ireland, including the deployment of 'counter-gangs', state-sponsored deaths squads. The entire state apparatus in the North of Ireland - the British army, the RUC, the legal system, the prisons, became, in the words of Brigadier Frank Kitson "weapons in the government's arsenal". (Kitson Low Intensity Operations.)
Despite the British military saturation of urban areas and widespread deployment in the countryside the IRA, with wide support in nationalist communities, continued to wage an effective campaign, making some parts of the country inaccessible by road to British forces. In August 1979 the IRA inflicted its greatest number of casualties on the British Army in a single incident since the 1919-21 period when it ambushed and killed 18 British soldiers at Warrenpoint, County Down.
In the 1980s Britain's counter-insurgency war manifested itself in attempts to break the IRA through the political prisoners. Having effectively recognised IRA members as prisoners of war up to 1976 the British introduced a criminalisation policy in that year. Torture in interrogations centres was the first stage on a 'conveyor belt' which passed through one-judge, no-jury courts, to long sentences and brutality within the prisons. But the refusal of IRA Volunteers to succumb to this strategy - culminating in the deaths of ten republicans on hunger-strike in 1981 - led to its failure and to a resurgance of support for republicanism.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s confidential contacts were maintained between British government representatives and the IRA. These channels proved unproductive of an understanding on the British part of how to resolve the conflict. Both the IRA and the British Army publicly admitted that military victory for either side was not possible.
The cessation of military operations announced in August 1994 by the IRA was a result, not of any understanding with its enemy, but of the Irish Peace Initiative which was initiated by Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and SDLP leader John Hume and supported by the Irish government.
Once more an opportunity was created for the British government to recognise the democratic wishes of the Irish people.
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The idea of a "Death of God" and even "Christian Atheism" was made popular among the general public through Time magazine which carried a cover story all about the Death of God. In this story, interviews with hundreds of theologians conducted by dozens of correspondents revealed that many theologians and religious leaders were doubting the veracity of theism, but were nevertheless committed to continuing with theology — even with the theos.
Also known as radical theology, this Christian perspective never attracted a huge following and ultimately faded from the scene relatively quickly. That doesn't mean that it had absolutely no influence at all — many liberal theologians today studied with a number of the early Death of God theologians and teachers.
As a matter of fact, it would be a mistake to argue that there was a single "Death of God" theology; in reality, there were many "Death of God" theologies, each dependent upon the particular teacher or theologian. This great dependence upon individual teachers probably played a role in its demise — once those teachers disappeared from the scene, so did much of the interest in what they had to say.
Atheism has long been closely associated with nihilism, both for good and for bad reasons, but usually for bad reasons in the writings of critics of both. It is alleged that atheism necessarily leads to nihilism because atheism necessarily results in materialism, scientism, ethical relativism, and a sense of despair that must lead to feelings of suicide. All of these tend to be basic characteristics of nihilistic philosophies.
In some ways the connection between nihilism is valid but in other ways it is not — disentangling the two requires first a better grasp of what atheism is all about and how premises of critics tend to cause them to misrepresent it. Fundamentally, atheism is simply the absence of belief in the existence of any gods — it does not require that one adopt materialism, scientism, ethical relativism, or a sense of despair over the apparent meaninglessness of life.
Those who invest much in traditional religious beliefs do not, however, quite see things that way.
For them, their religion and theism are what provide them with morality, with meaning in life, and with a sense of connection to eternal, spiritual values. Without their religion and without God, they find it inconceivable that a person could hold on to any of those things.
And, in all fairness, some atheists do abandon those positions. Most atheists (in the West, at least) tend to be materialists of one sort or another, not believing in any non-material or supernatural realm. Atheists are also generally ethical relativists, adopting one form or another of ethical nihilism. And, finally, there are plenty of atheistic existentialists who believe that human life is objectively meaningless.
Few, atheists, however, actually go so far as to commit suicide or engage in wanton criminality as the conservative religious critics insist must logically conclude from these positions. This should be a strong signal that what the critics contend are "logical connections" are in fact nothing of the sort. When we look closely we can also find that some of these positions have been adopted by devout religious believers. Existentialism was originally developed by Christian thinkers, for example.
So atheism doesn't necessarily lead to nihilism while nihilism isn't necessarily a product of atheism. Is there, then, any connection at all? It is certainly arguable that atheism makes nihilism easier — for example, Nietzsche made the case that widespread atheism overthrew the only interpretation (theistic) of the world that was really popular. As a consequence, people got the impression that there wasn't really any meaning out there at all and so lost hope.
At the same time, however, even this connection has in many ways disappeared. Today the negative image of nihilists is associated less with nonconforming atheists and more with overly conforming, robotic workers of the post-industrial age. It is argued that the heavy regimentation of the corporate world robs a person's life of all color, vitality, freedom, reducing a person's humanity to the point where they feel personally alienated from all that they do. In the end, after everything is packaged and sanitized and processed, there is nothing of real value left for them.
As is the case with Existentialism, the basic principles which underlie nihilism existed long before there was a term that attempted to describe them as a coherent whole. In the case of nihilism, most of the basic principles can be found in the development of ancient skepticism among the ancient Greeks.
Often portrayed as the original skeptic, and perhaps also the original nihilist, was Gorgias (483-378 BCE) who is famous for having said: "Nothing exists. If anything did exist it could not be known. If it was known, the knowledge of it would be incommunicable." This was a radical reversal of many of people's common assumptions and it remains a radical challenge even today.
Gorgias was not technically a "skeptic" in the sense of being part of the skeptical school of philosophers — he was instead a Sophist.
The philosophers who belonged more or less explicitly to the Skeptical school of philosophy were known in ancient Greece as the "Skeptikoi." The term comes from the Greek verb skeptomai which means "to look carefully, to reflect."
The Skeptics regarded the basic principle of their outlook as epistemological skeptikoi or caution. They were adamant about not making statements which might be proven false and which they could not prove absolutely true. Because that included just about everything, their ultimate conclusion tended to be that everything usually treated as "knowledge" is really just opinion and nothing is really "true."
The first "Philosophical Skeptic" is generally regarded as Pyrrho (c. 360 — c.270 BCE), a man about whom relatively little is known; but we do have some information about his ideas through later followers. According to one of his students, Timon of Phlius, Pyrrho argued that everything around us is equally indifferent (adiaphora), unmeasurable (astathmêta), and indeterminate (anepikrita). Neither our senses nor our opinions really inform us of the truth of the world — no matter what we believe, someone equally clever and intelligent believes the exact opposite. The only conclusion then is to have no opinion in the first place and remain uncommitted.
Most members of the skeptical school of philosophy argued for what might be called "epistemological skepticism" — their focus was upon the reliability of our senses and therefore our ability to make knowledge claims about the world around us. A number of Greek philosophers, for example Heraclitus, Parmenides, Democritus, Empedocles, and Anaxagoras, came to argue that our senses were not reliable sources of factual information.
This is not to say, however, that discussion about values was entirely neglected by the Skeptics. Another philosopher who has become famous for his skeptical position was Protagoras (480-411 BCE). He is remembered for having said that "Man is the measure of all things," a statement generally interpreted to mean that there are not objective, absolute standards that exist external to human beings. Instead, all standards by which things might be measured (including our values) must come from within human beings and are dependent upon our circumstances and situations.
This sort of philosophical skepticism, whatever form it took, became an important influence on all of Greek philosophy that followed. It is arguable that most of Western philosophy as a whole can be best understood as an attempt to demonstrate that knowledge is possible and that adequate grounds for justifying beliefs exist. In other words, much of philosophy involves attempts to refute or at least forestall the critiques of radical skepticism.
One primary understanding of nihilism which existed even within early Russian Nihilism and has continued down through today is the idea that moral norms, but especially traditional morality, cannot be justified by any rational or scientific standards. As a consequence, they have no "reality" — they do not exist anywhere except in the minds of people and hence do not really "exist" at all.
In this sense of nihilism, it is arguable that nihilistic beliefs are very common today, especially among philosophers. A great many people regard moral statement as arbitrary, by which I mean that they either do not stem from some eternal and infallible source (like God) or they cannot be perfectly and absolutely grounded in unquestionable logic and reason. Indeed, there are so many positions which can justifiably be called moral or ethical nihilism (although ethical relativism is in more common usage) that it wouldn't be possible to describe them all here.
Instead, it would be better to simply take a look at the two primary positions which reject moral nihilism.
The first and historically most common is the one which argues that moral standards are derived from God. God says what is right and what is wrong, God informs us about this, and we are obligated to obey what God has decided.
People who adopt this sort of position consider moral nihilism to be truly anathema — for them, the nihilistic position would license any sort of moral outrage and every sort of criminal behavior. This particular condemnation has been perhaps best expressed by the character of Ivan in Dostoyevky's Brothers Karamazov, who said "If God does not exist, everything is permitted" — an attitude which led him to acquiesce to his own father's murder.
This idea that morality requires divine sanction and support is simply not tenable anymore. The position is either false because this god is relying upon an independent standard of goodness, or it meaningless and circular, because this god's decisions about what is and is not moral is no less arbitrary than our own and what is "morally good" loses any independent definition.
It is largely because of this, I think, that modern critics of ethical nihilism rely less upon appeals to God and more on appeals to reason. According to them, justifiable moral standards must be based upon universal standards of reason and logic. How, then, should we resolve moral dilemmas where two sides conflict? It is entirely possible for two groups of people to sincerely hold incompatible moral positions, yet there seems little recourse to a "universal standard" that all should be able to accept.
It would perhaps be preferable if there existed a set of universal and objective moral standards that were independent of our emotions, prejudices, and passions — but even so, who knows if we humans would be able to find, identify, and understand them? It seems much more likely that ethical nihilism is the pragmatic position to adopt. If universal moral standards exist, we may have just as much luck hitting upon them under ethical nihilism as we do under moral realism.
Aside from moral nihilism, the other primary sense of the term which existed as a part of early Russian Nihilism and which has continued even today might be called "existential nihilism." It shares a close affinity with Existentialism, arguing that human life is ultimately trivial and meaningless. Where it parts company with Existentialism, however, is in the level of resulting despair and the conclusion that therefore perhaps the best course of action is suicide.
Once again, as with Moral Nihilism, we can find a good expression of the Existentialist position in work by Dostoyevksy. This time, in The Possessed, his character Kirilov argued that if God does not really exist, then only individual freedom in life is genuinely meaningful. However, he also added that the most free thing that a person could do would be to end that life rather than live under the control of social systems created by others.
There are two aspects to this position which merit attention: whether the absence of any god renders human life meaningless and whether that meaninglessness forces us to conclude that suicide is the best course of action. The first aspect, like the question of the validity of moral nihilism, is technical and philosophical in nature. The second, though, is much more psychological.
Now, it is certainly true that large numbers of people throughout history and even today have believed that the existence of some divine purpose to the universe is necessary for them to have purpose and meaning in their lives. What that majority believes to be true for themselves is not, however, dispositive for the rest of humanity. Quite a few people have managed to live very purposeful and meaningful lives without any belief in any gods — and no one is in a position of authority that would allow them to contradict what those people say about meaning in their lives.
By the same token, the fact that people have experienced great anguish and despair over the apparent loss of meaning in life when they have doubted the existence of God does not, therefore, mean that everyone who doubts or disbelieves must necessarily go through similar experiences. Indeed, some treat that doubt and disbelief very positively, arguing that it provides a superior basis for living than do faith and religion.
Not all claims that life today is meaningless are entirely dependent upon the assumption that there is no God. There is, in addition, the vision of the "postmodern man," a conformist who has become dehumanized and alienated by the nature of modern industrial and consumer society. Political and social conditions have rendered him indifferent and even baffled, causing him to direct his energy towards hedonistic narcissism or simply a resentment that might explode in violent behavior.
This is a nihilism that has become stripped of even the remotest of hope for a meaningful life, leaving only the expectation that life will be little more than sickness, decay, and disintegration. It must be pointed out here, though, that there are some differences in how the concept "meaningful life" is being used.
Those who insist that a meaningful life depends upon God mean it in the sense of a life that is meaningful from an objective perspective. Those who disbelieve in God will usually agree that there is no "objective" meaning to their lives, but deny that therefore there is no meaning at all. Instead, they argue that their lives can be fulfilling and purposeful from the subjective perspectives of themselves and other human beings. Because they find this satisfying, they do not sink into despair and they do not feel that suicide is the best option.
People who cannot be satisfied with personal meaning may not be able to resist such a move; for them, then, suicide would be appealing. Nevertheless, that is not the conclusion typically reached by existential nihilists. For them the objective meaninglessness of life can often be viewed as quite liberating, because it frees humans from the demands of tradition which are themselves based upon false assumptions about the binding wills of gods and ancestors.
Many of the most common responses to the basic premises of nihilism come down to despair: despair over the loss of God, despair over the loss of objective and absolute values, and/or despair over the postmodern condition of alienation and dehumanization. That does not, however, exhaust all of the possible responses — just as with early Russian Nihilism, there are those who embrace this perspective and rely upon it as a means for further development.
The first step in moving from despair to hope seems to be accepting the validity of nihilism as simply being the logical conclusion of brutal honesty about our lives and the world around us. The absence of objective and absolute values may not be an entirely pleasant conclusion, but that doesn't make it the wrong conclusion. The next step seems to be the argument that the absence of objective values does not therefore negate the possibility of any values whatsoever.
For postmodernists, what follows is the belief that all values and all "metanarratives" are equally valid.
Christians who accepted the principles of nihilism and created what became known as "Death of God" theology argued that in a "post-Christian" society, the nature and need for God had to be rethought. Not all atheists accept the principles of atheism; among those who do, not all accept the postmodernist conclusion that all values are therefore equally valid.
When it comes to how they respond to nihilism, modern and postmodern thinkers follow closely in the steps of German Friedrich Nietzsche who used the the assumption of nihilism as the basis for the revaluation of all values. Indeed, many who would count themselves as participants in postmodernism owe quite a lot to the work and insights of Nietzsche, particularly when it comes to his critiques of modernity and modern assumptions.
It is a central thesis of postmodernism that there is neither truth nor error and that all beliefs and perspectives are equally valid. Rather than seeing this as a reason for despair, postmodernists rely upon this thesis as the source of inspiration, allowing them to ignore many traditional assumptions in order to develop new and radical ideas. Jacques Derrida, for example, has argued that the absence of any possibility for absolute truth should not lead us to nihilistic despair because it effectively eliminates the possibility of totalitarianism, a political and social system which relies so heavily upon the assumption of possessing an absolute system of truth that needs to be imposed upon everyone.