Commentary Magazine


Why Men Rebel, by Ted Robert Gurr

Patterns of Discontent

Why Men Rebel.
by Ted Robert Gurr.
Princeton University Press. 421 pp. $12.50.

Some of the most persuasive arguments for the policy now called “benign neglect” are to be found in this book, although that is probably coincidence and certainly not the intention of the author. Daniel P. Moynihan’s memorandum, it will be recalled, was not a complacent document; the “neglect” he called for was a period of restraint in rhetoric, of cooling of public passion, to avoid the violence that always complicates the attainment of major social reform. His recommendation fits quite well a Republican campaign statement that at first glance might appear sheer demagogy: the ghetto riots, said Republicans, were fueled by the disappointments generated by the failure to keep impossible promises.

There is, indeed, a case to be made for this view, a case elaborated and qualified in Ted Robert Gurr’s book. The argument begins, like most theories of revolution, with the phenomenon which Gurr calls “Relative Deprivation,” and which results directly in the phenomenon known to us all as “discontent.” People become discontented, according to this reading, not because they are living in misery, but because their expectations for their conditions of life exceed their present possibilities. Dissatisfaction, that is, comes not from one’s objective material deprivations, but from one’s attitude toward them—an old observation which American political science has lately rediscovered and made much of. To be precise, Gurr outlines several patterns of discontent: people, in one case, can no longer obtain goods to which they had become accustomed; in another, they have been led to expect, as their due, improvements which are unobtainable.

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The more intensely people are discontented, postulates Gurr, the more likely they are to resort to violence. The immediate reaction, in its basic form, is amorphous, unfocused “collective violence,” examples of which were the Negro riots in innumerable American cities over the past six years. If one believes that such violence can have grave consequences for the republic, and Gurr argues that violence can be habit-forming, then one should welcome all reasonable public policies which reduce to any extent the possibility of its recurrence. One such policy, suggested by this argument, is simply to avoid raising expectations to a level impossible of satisfaction. It should immediately be stressed that neither Gurr nor Moynihan thinks this course of action will solve the basic problems behind the ghetto riots. It is, however, a sensible preliminary to reduce the likelihood of violence, especially if quiet progress can be and is being made on other fronts. Some of the greatest and most enduring social changes in history have been brought about without publicity and almost without notice.

The primary intention of Gurr’s book is not, however, to give advice. (He has already done that, as the director of a task force for the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence.) His book presents instead a general theory of political violence, and points like the above must be extrapolated by readers from its postulates. Gurr states and argues sixty-five hypotheses and corollaries, some of which are genuine, if not altogether original, insights into the phenomenon of political violence. His reasoning is comprehensive and solid in an area where so much contemporary thought is sheer fantasy, and his book would deserve circulation outside the field of political science were it not for the fact that for anyone not driven by professional interests, it is almost impossible to read. This is a shame, because Gurr’s basic argument is worthy of attention. It is both sophisticated and simple, and even its shortcomings are provocative. (I would direct the interested general reader to Gurr’s less technical and better-written article in the volume he edited for the Violence Commission, a well-balanced anthology entitled Violence in America: Historical and Comparative Perspectives. It is available from the U.S. Superintendent of Documents at $2.75, a saving of almost $10 over the Princeton volume.) I have already outlined Gurr’s basic statements on the origin of discontent and its expression in “collective violence.” The next important phase of his theory is the metamorphosis of this apolitical violence into politicized discontent. Gurr has developed an original and quite elegant categorization of political violence into three general forms: turmoil (such as rioting or strikes); conspiracy; and civil or internal war. Much of his theory elaborates the influences that cause politicized discontent to take one or another of these forms.

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As an example of Gurr’s method of presentation and argument, let us look at his discussion of the American racial problem. In the early and mid-60′s, Gurr writes, conditions of turmoil predominated within the black community; these were: intense discontent caused by economic and status deprivation, at its greatest in urban slums among the lower class; the lack of organizations committed to violent political opposition; and geographical concentration facilitating high but inconsistent police control. In the middle and late 60′s, he continues, the pattern shifted toward the conditions of internal war: intensified discontent of the elite; partial failure of political channels, making the government a more direct focus of anger; and an inconsistent pattern of police response to the riots. But the structural conditions of internal war are still lacking: institutional and coercive control remain high and the new clandestine radical organizations are unlikely to reverse the balance of power. Consequently, Gurr concludes, black political violence will take the form of chronic turmoil and conspiracy, until, and unless, underlying discontents are resolved. Each of the above-mentioned factors receives elaboration in the rest of the book; unfortunately, Gurr rarely tries his hand at similar analyses of specific situations.

The presentation of these political factors complements and strengthens Gurr’s use of psychological material, the other major innovation of his book. The psychological argument, his most basic and also most vulnerable, tries to explain the jump from “relative deprivation” to violence. When men can’t get what they think are their just deserts, argues Gurr, they become frustrated. Gurr adopts from the large body of psychological literature on the “frustration-anger-aggression syndrome” the hypothesis that aggression (the product of anger) is the main response to frustration, and that “men who are frustrated have an innate disposition to do violence to its source in proportion to the intensity of their frustration.” (In a gratuitous polemical flourish, he compares this principle, the driving force of his theory, with the law of gravity.) But although Gun-uses his psychology much more soundly than, say, Stanley Elkins does in Slavery, he encounters similar limitations. His citations, even by his own account, do not support his over-dogmatic conclusion; some studies report such other products of frustration as “submission,” “dependence,” and “apathy”—reactions which could lead to political deductions directly the opposite of Gurr’s. Furthermore, although the literature cited by Gurr deals with animals, children, and New Guinea tribesmen, it rarely describes grown men in political circumstances. Anyone who tries to apply modern psychology directly to politics runs the serious risk of losing all perspective and clarity. It is greatly to Gurr’s credit that he reintroduces the political perspective in the later stages of his theory, but one has the feeling that a chance was missed here to discuss a crucial political phenomenon—anger—as it ought to be discussed in the full context of political life.

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Even more disappointing is Gurr’s failure adequately to come to grips with the most politically important findings of this branch of psychology, findings which he duly presents in Why Men Rebel. Briefly, some psychological experimenters have discovered that their subjects react with less aggression than usual when faced with frustrations they think are reasonable or justifiable; as in the memorable scene in Truffaut’s extraordinary movie L’Enfant Sauvage, the subjects bear witness to a crude but functioning sense of justice. This evidence reveals more than Gurr intends it to, and he overlooks its significance because of a blind spot, not only in his book, but in his profession. Gurr makes the comment one would expect from a “value-free” social scientist: “What is ‘reasonable’ or ‘non-arbitrary’ frustration is of course a function of social learning.” Political science, which tries to study social phenomena as objectively as a biologist would dissect a shark, is embarrassed by words like “reasonable” and even “non-arbitrary.” The question of justice is not easily elucidated by the scientific method, and so it is papered over by concepts like “socially learned normative systems.” But Gurr, who deals with a more comprehensive subject than do most political scientists, has greater difficulty in evading this problem. It comes up very early, in his definition of relative deprivation as the discrepancy between the goods and conditions of life people think they can get and keep, and those “to which people think they are rightfully entitled.” In other words, the basic cause of discontent is that people feel they are suffering injustice.

By putting aside the question of justice, Gurr limits and distorts his discussion of all the related problems, such as the question of legitimacy. The justice of a regime is the ultimate root of its legitimacy, although the historical and political ramifications are innumerable. It is in examining one latter-day offshoot of this problem that Gurr mentions the psychological findings I refer to above; he presents them for their bearing on one of his hypotheses: that the more people believe in the legitimacy of a regime, the less likely they are to believe in the rightness of political violence. The question of legitimacy, unhappily, remains for Gurr the question of measuring citizen support for a regime, as the question of the rightness of a revolution remains the question of measuring the extent or intensity of support for it. Gurr approaches the very relevant political question: When is violence actually justified? However, although he gets further than most, he ultimately refuses to cross the boundaries set by his profession, and asks only the political scientist’s question: When do people think it is justified? In real life, however, the problem of justice cannot be evaded. We can see why it ought to be so important, not only for Gurr, but for all of us, if we refer to his report to the Commission on Violence:

In the perfect social order, all acts judged legal would be regarded as legitimate by the community, all illegal acts would be illegitimate. No such clear-cut distinction holds in the United States so far as violence, force, and protest are concerned, nor has it ever. . . . Americans deplored the assassination of John F. Kennedy, yet years earlier many had applauded the abortive attempt on the life of Adolf Hitler.

At a time when many of our most vicious demagogues refuse to see the difference between Nazi Germany and the United States, the good of the republic demands that we approach the questions of justice and legitimacy—and violence—with a serious attempt to make clear-cut distinctions.

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