Abdusalam Guseinov, Russia

Non-violence isn’t about the world, it’s about the individual

Non-violence can only be properly understood if we view it as a post-violence stage. If we look to the stages of a person’s spiritual elevation, then we can build the following sequence: obedience, reciprocal violence and non-violence. That is, from obedience a person comes to the stage of reciprocal violence, demonstrating their willingness to take up arms. Only once he has overcome this stage can he understand that there is an even more radical solution to the question – the fight of non-violence.

Abdusalam Guseynov, Russia

Moscow, March 2018

Academician, doctor of philosophical science, scientific leader at the Institute of philosophy of RAS, professor of the department of ethics at MSU, author of the concept of the ethics of non-violence Abdusalam A. Guseynov (born 1939 in Alkadar, Dagestan) has very kindly agreed to answer our questions.

As always we are interested in the practice of non-violence – this time in the context of education and behaviour: how should an individual act who doesn’t wish to participate in violence against people? But let’s start with the analysis of one of the most important texts of Leo Tolstoy, who not only completely excludes any ambiguity of the interpretation of the concepts of love and violence, but who also directly opposes them against each other.


The law of violence and the law of love

Excerpt of an article by Abdusalam Guseynov to the treatise of the same name by Leo Tolstoy

Love as the highest moral virtue and power of uniting people was recognised by all the most important religious teachings pre Christ. And this is recognised by all people when they talk about morality… Christ made two clarifications to this question which were not in the previous teachings and which did not enter into everyday moral consciousness. He said that:

  1. Love is the only high law of life;
  2. It doesn’t allow for any exceptions, applies to everyone, including to enemies and those who do evil.

Love is the only high law, since it defines the nature of the relationship of individuals to infinite life, man to God and sets the limit of human perfection, reaching the point of readiness to renounce animal life in the name of spiritual life. The formula of the law on love was expressed by Jesus the night before his execution, when he, overcoming doubts and weakness before facing the worst thing that can happen to a person, said to God: ‘Not like me, but as You want’. And this law does not allow for exceptions, as exceptions confuse it and deprive it of the status of law.

The law of love is opposed by the law of violence. Violence by definition is the opposite of love: ‘All violence consists in the fact that some people, under the force of suffering or death, force others to do things they don’t want to do’. Understood in this way violence cannot be a companion to love. Unless it is only in the sense that darkness is a companion to light, delusion as a companion to truth. No matter how connected these pairs are, we nevertheless distinguish them by saying: we strive for light and truth and not darkness and delusion.

Love is based on reason, violence on force. Love places the spiritual above the animal, violence the animal above the spiritual. Love concerns a person from the inside, violence from the outside. The main difference is that love unites and violence divides.

The law on love becomes concrete in the negation of the law on violence. Speaking about the law on love, Tolstoy very often finds it necessary to add that it doesn’t allow exceptions; the most simple and elemental manifestation of it is to not do to others what you wouldn’t wish upon yourself… It must be highlighted that the law on love in its purely Christian understanding doesn’t allow for any exceptions, none of these supposedly exceptional situations and actions (protecting a child against which someone has raised a knife, protection of the fatherland etc.) would be allowed.

Through an unconditional rejection of violence the law on love is an effective rule of behaviour, in the words of Tolstoy, it guides a person’s actions. For modern people the truth that liberates people is the law on love as described by Jesus Christ, understood as the rejection of violence and non-resistance to evil by violence.


The school of non-violence

— Abdusalam Abdulkerimovich, how do you see the development of the subject of ‘non-violence’ in educational programmes in school and universities? Which steps must be taken to implement this subject and what are its prospects?

I am sceptical about the practicability of the subject of ‘non-violence’ in schools. Non-violence cannot simply be viewed as one aspect or one point of view of ourselves in this world. This is a completely different basis for life, different in direction. If in the light of such an understanding, we talk seriously about schools then we must talk about a serious reconstruction of the organisations (with the ascension of teachers over students, the assignment system and other forms of external discipline), about a radical reorientation of existing subjects, and not of their addition to a subject called ‘non-violence’.

As for what seems possible today within the framework of school programmes as a way to introduce children to the ideas of non-violence, the best option is to study the lives and views of our contemporaries such as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King who believed in such ideas and lived by them.

— How would you characterise your own contribution to solving the problem of violence in modern society? Both within the academic sphere and, more importantly, outside of it? Where and how does it find (or can it find in the near future) a response from people outside of science?

I don’t think I’ve made a ‘contribution to solving the problem of violence in modern society’. Except that I introduced the understanding of the ethics of non-violence, highlighting the impossibility of moral justification and justification of violence in any form, whether it be a so-called ‘just’ war, retaliation violence, violence in special cases etc. I wouldn’t say that I was met with a response either in the academic sphere or outside of it. Rather, just a bewilderment as to how someone educated and in their right mind can think and talk like that. In our history our culture was such an episode. Dostoevsky wanted in 1880 to go to Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana (although, as you know, they didn’t meet each other) but those around him convinced him not to, saying that Tolstoy had lost his mind.

In my opinion, most people today treat the idea of non-violence as a beautiful dream and accept it as this. This interpretation could be justified due to its realism, except for one issue. Incredible in the long run with practically limitless technological power and diversity of cultural differences and individual experiences, it doesn’t leave any positive alternatives except the rebuilding of it very existence on the basis of the absolute rejection of violence, just as the basis of cannibalism was rebuilt.

— How, in principle, can you apply the conclusions that you have achieved as a result of many years of scientific study, in practice – to the everyday man who doesn’t want to participate in violence towards others? What would he need to do and what shouldn’t he do?

Let me begin with one general argument.

Non-violence is a very special type of social experience. It’s that which we call history, its laws, is the sum total, the result of numerous individual wills, a total which does not coincide with any one of these wills in particular and opposes them as an independent external force. The ideologies that exist in the modern world act as such an external force on the individual beliefs on behalf of history, nations, society, class, government etc.

Non-violence is something entirely different, it’s a law that everyone can follow directly and which applies to everyone. It’s a historical law and is an existence for which everyone is individually responsible. It is a law because there are no exceptions, like for example, the law of gravity. You can ignore it by committing violent acts, just as you can ignore the law of gravity by jumping from a window upside down. The result is one and the same: destruction, one in the case of the soul, the other the body.

For example, Tolstoy understood perfectly that the death penalty is linked with the state as an apparatus of violence, but he didn’t follow the normal path of reasoning, which argues to change the character of the state so that it doesn’t need such to use the fear of the death penalty, or to even abolish it, even though his negative feelings about the state are well known. He, arguing in the logic of the law of non-violence, said that the death penalty would not be able to exist if nobody wished to act on it. The state practicing the death penalty may have developed methods of making the action anonymous, but there is always the link between the individual and the murder. The guarantee of non-violence is that the link doesn’t exist.

You ask what to do and what not to do if one doesn’t wish to partake in violence towards others?

The right thing to do is decided by each person in relation to their own biography, individual character, life circumstances, profession etc. However, you must remove the feeling of revenge and to sort out familial relationships and to give up dominance and become friendly in character, the third thing to do is build good relationships with workers, colleagues, namely to focus on both the obvious and hidden forms of violence in everyday life. You also need to understand that rebuilding your life within the framework of non-violence isn’t one single act or a multi-step task. It’s a life process with no end and is limitless in its demands. You need to know that non-violence goes beyond man’s natural capabilities and opposes social laws. It is based on moral strength, what is commonly called man’s divine principle. For complete and concrete advice read Tolstoy’s works from the second half of his life.

As for what you shouldn’t do the answer is simple: don’t participate in physical violence (murder, suffering etc.), spiritual violence (lying, slander etc.), social violence (not participating in institutional violence, including military service). Perhaps the most difficult thing isn’t determining what not to do. The most difficult thing is learning that violence is bad. That it is always bad in any form. It is something that shouldn’t exist among people and in the human world. To think this way can be difficult for me when my colleagues are busy looking for arguments in favour of violence as a benefit to the other, for example, when they ask what to do if a criminal raises a knife to a defenceless child. Confident in their idea that they are protecting a defenceless child they write treatises about just wars.

The rejection of violence is also consequently a good thing for others. In the first place, it’s good for any person who rejects it. The philosophy and ethics of non-violence are formed from a completely new logic about the relationship of the individual to the world: not from the world to the individual, but from the individual to the world…

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