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Abdusalam Guseinov, academician

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 at the phases of a person’s spiritual development, then we can build the following sequence: obedience, reciprocal violence and nonviolence. That is, from obedience a person comes to the phase of reciprocal violence, demonstrating their willingness to take up arms. Only after they have passed beyond this phase can they understand that there is an even more radical solution to the question — the nonviolent struggle.

Abdusalam Guseynov

Moscow, March 2018

Academician, doctor of philosophy, scientific leader at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Science, professor in the department of ethics at Moscow State University, philosopher of the ethics of nonviolence, Abdusalam A. Guseynov (born 1939 in Alkadar, Dagestan) has very kindly agreed to answer our questions.

As always we are interested in the practical dimension of nonviolence — this time in the context of education and behavior: 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 on the treatise of the same name by Leo Tolstoy

Love as the highest moral virtue and power of uniting people was recognized by All the most important religious teachings before Christ recognized love as the highest moral virtue and as the power most capable of uniting people. And when people discuss morality, they still recognize these teachings.… Christ added two clarifications to this question which had not been in the previous teachings and which had not entered into everyday moral consciousness. He said that:

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

Love is the only high law, since it defines the nature of the relationship of individuals to eternal life and humanity 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 my will but Yours be done.’ And this law does not allow for exceptions, as exceptions cause confusion 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, except in the sense that darkness is a companion to light, delusion is 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 places 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 of love becomes concrete as it negates the law of violence. Speaking about the law of love, Tolstoy very often finds it necessary to add that it does not allow exceptions. Its most simple and elemental manifestation is not to do to others what you would not wish upon yourself…. It must be highlighted that the law on love in its purely Christian understanding does not allow for any exceptions. None of these supposedly exceptional situations and actions (protecting a child against whom someone has raised a knife, protection of the fatherland, etc.) are legitimate exceptions.

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


The school of non-violence

— Abdusalam Abdulkerimovich, how do you see the development of the subject of ‘nonviolence’ in educational programs in schools 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 ‘nonviolence’ in schools. Nonviolence cannot simply be viewed as one aspect or one point of view of ourselves in this world. Nonviolence is a completely different basis for life, a different orientation. If in the light of such an understanding, we want to talk seriously about schools, then we must talk about a serious reconstruction of the organizations (that now feature the superiority of teachers over students, the assignment system, and other forms of external discipline), about a radical reorientation of existing subjects, rather than simply adding a subject called ‘nonviolence’ to the existing program.

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

— How would you characterize 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.’ I did, however, introduce a particular focus on understanding the ethics of nonviolence, emphasizing the impossibility of moral justification and approval of violence in any form, whether it be a so-called ‘just’ war, retaliatory 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, there was just bewilderment as to how someone educated and in their right mind can think and talk like that. There was an incident of this sort in our cultural history: in 1880, Dostoevsky wanted to go to Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana, but those around Dostoevsky convinced him not to, saying that Tolstoy had lost his mind. (In the end, they never did meet.)

In my opinion, most people today treat the idea of nonviolence as a beautiful dream and accept it as such. This interpretation could be justified as an application of realism, except for one issue. The practically limitless power of technology that we can anticipate in the long run, along with diversity of cultural differences and individual experiences, doesn't leave humanity any positive alternatives except the reconfiguration of humanity’s very existence on the basis of the absolute rejection of violence, just as an earlier reconfiguration led to the rejection of cannibalism.

— 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 ordinary person on the street who doesn’t want to participate in violence towards others? What would he or she need to do and not do?

Let me begin with one general argument.

Nonviolence is a very special type of social experience.  History — that is, what we call history, and the laws of history — is a kind of summation, the cumulative result of numerous individual wills. This sum total does not coincide with any one of those wills in particular and in fact opposes them as an independent external force. The ideologies that exist in the modern world act as this kind of external force on individual beliefs, a force that acts on behalf of history, nations, society, class, government, etc.

Nonviolence is something entirely different. It’s a law that everyone can follow directly and that applies to everyone. At one and the same time, it’s a law that generates history and that reflects everyone’s individual responsibility. It is a law because there are no exceptions, just as, 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 — in one case, of the soul, and in the other, the body.

For example, Tolstoy understood perfectly that the death penalty is linked with the state as an entity organized around violence, but he didn’t follow the normal path of reasoning, which argues for changing the character of the state, so that the state wouldn’t need to use fear of the death penalty, or might even abolish it, even though his negative feelings about the state are well known. Instead he argued according to the logic of nonviolence: 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 the link between the individual and the murder is always still there. Nonviolence breaks the link — guaranteed. It no longer exists.

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 first overcome the impulse to revenge. Then, give up dominance in favor of peaceful and friendly relations within your family. The third thing to do is build good relationships with workers, colleagues. To sum up, you need to focus on both the obvious and the hidden forms of violence in everyday life. You also need to understand that rebuilding your life within the framework of nonviolence isn’t one single act or even a multi-step task. It’s a life process with no end and is limitless in its demands. You need to know that nonviolence goes beyond our natural capabilities and opposes social laws. It is based on moral strength, what is commonly called the divine principle within us. 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, torture, 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 favor of the utility of violence on behalf of someone else, for example, when they ask what to do if a criminal is raising a knife over a defenseless child. Confident in their idea that they are protecting a defenceless child, they write treatises about just wars.

The benefits of rejecting violence affect those who join in this rejection, and to everyone they influence. In the first place, this position is good for the one who adopts it. The philosophy and ethics of nonviolence 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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