Niebuhr No. 4: Force, Revolution, and Social Change

As we close this series on Reinhold Niebuhr’s early work, it important to position him again within the context of American Christian political thinking, which helps to understand both his early work and why his later work became noticeably more Christian in its outlook. The early members of the Social Gospel movement were deeply influenced by German Enlightenment theological thinking. They were optimistic about the human race’s potential to create a better world, perhaps even a perfect world by the implementation of Enlightenment ideas.

Niebuhr marks the beginning of a new phase in which, like Karl Barth and other of the “Neo-Orthodox” thinkers, attempts were made to find a place for a more Biblical and historically orthodox view of the human situation without abandoning higher criticism of the Bible and important insights of modern theology. In particular, like Barth and others in the movement, Niebuhr led in the recovery of the importance of the Doctrine of the Fall and of the inevitable sinfulness of the human race in understanding the human condition. This, of course, led Niebuhr and others in his “Political Realist” movement towards a sober view of human perfectibility and secular schemes, such as Marxism and Naziism, that purported to have found a secular way to establish a better society.

This view is only partially evident in Moral Man and Immoral Society which is Niebuhr’s earliest work and does not evidence his mature thinking  [1] In MMIS, Niebuhr is still beguiled with the Russian experiment with Communism and a Marxist interpretation of political reality. It is a view he would considerably modify over the years as the full extent of the horrors of Soviet Communism were exposed. His more mature thinking is evidenced in his Gifford Lectures published as, The Nature and Destiny of Man, a work we will look at later. [2]

Force and Social Change

Given Niebuhr’s Marxist analysis of society, he is led to the view that social change inevitably requires the use of force, that is physical, political, and legal power. For the early Marxists, only some kind of “revolutionary struggle” would end injustice. The early Niebuhr follows this analysis with qualification. [3] Once again, it is important to question this foundation for his analysis. While it is true in human history that the elimination of injustice has involved violence, this is not always the case. For example, in the United States, elimination of slavery required the American Civil War. However, in England elimination of the Slave Trade was accomplished without violence, largely because of the efforts of William Wilberforce and his comrades, most of whom were Christian. The elimination of injustice in Russia and China arguably required a violent upheaval, but India received her independence from Great Britain, as did Ghana and other nations, without a violent, revolutionary struggle of the kind that Russia experienced.

Justice through Revolution

Niebuhr begins his chapter on revolution with a discussion of whether revolutionary violence is justified in order to establish a more just society. His basic view is that “the end justifies the means.” In his early view, the Marxist objective of a classless and economically fair society is “identical with the most rational possible social goal, that of equal justice.” [4] This being the case, violence cannot automatically excluded from the possibilities if it is not “intrinsically immoral” to engage in violent behavior.

According to Niebuhr, revolutionary violence is not intrinsically immoral for two reasons.

  1. First, although non-violence is always an expression of good will, it is not true that violence is always an expression of ill-will. All societies use some measure of coercion, to maintain or create a social order. [5]
  2. Second, there is nothing intrinsically immoral about violence, despite traditional moral thought regarding the issue. [6]

In my view, Niebuhr’s analysis stems from his division between public and personal morality. For Niebuhr in this stage, respect for life, the opinions of others and the like are matters of personal but not necessarily public morality. [7]However, according to MMIS, there is still a significant question about the actual possibility of establishing justice through violence. [8]

Notwithstanding this analysis, Niebuhr does not think that the prospects for establishing a just society on revolutionary ideals for two reasons:

  1. First, there are too many different classes in a complex modern society, each with its own distinct interests, at least some of which would resist a proletarian revolution. [9]
  2. Second, there is division within the proletarian class itself regarding the morality of violent social revolution. [10]

An additional question concerns the possibility of maintaining such an ideal society, were it to be established by violence. There are a number of reasons to suspect that it would not.

  1. First, the abolition of economic privileges requires the assertion of strong centralized political force.
  2. Second, while selfish egotism may be curbed, it is unrealistic to believe that it can completely abolished. Thus, according to Niebuhr, the maintenance of the social ideal of the proletarian as a reality also does not seem realistic enough to justify the violence of revolutionary action. [11]

Use of Political Force

As mentioned above, Marx believed that the biggest obstacle to revolution is that proletarian class is divided. This division involves two major groups within the proletariat:

  1. Unskilled workers and those at the bottom of the society tend to support revolutionary action.
  2. Skilled workers who are more favored by the capitalistic system are less likely to seek violent change.

The goal of the second group is not revolution but the acquisition of political power. [12] Niebuhr recognizes that this method for the achievement of greater social equality has been partially successful in Western democracies. However, according to Niebuhr, there are problems with trying to achieve social justice through democratic political means.

  1. Transfer of wealth through taxation is affected by the law of diminishing returns. You cannot tax the rich forever without consequences. [13]
  2. The proletarian class must rely on the cooperation of the middle classes in order to achieve a parliamentary majority. However, the middle class, because of its own comfortable position in the current system, is ill-equipped to really appreciate the plight of the proletarian classes. Education cannot full rectify this situation. [14]
  3. Experts, who are needed to produce change, cannot be counted to identify social inequalities and rectify them due to their own class bias and the power of interest groups. [15]
  4. Peasants and the farmer can be counted on to join with the proletariat to form a parliamentary majority. [16]

These factors militate against achievement of the ideals of the proletarian classes and suggest to some that what is needed is collaboration in order to achieve some of the goals of the proletariat. In the end, there is simply no modern industrial state in which the situation where a revolution is likely to be successful exists, and there is abundant evidence that such a revolution, if it did not fail, would not create an ideal state, which Niebuhr did not believe possible within the limitations of history. Thus Niebuhr finally concludes, “The hope that there will ever be an ideal society, in which everyone cand take without restraint from the common social process ‘according to his need’ completely disregards the limitations of human nature.” [17]

Moral Values in Politics

Finally, Niebuhr returns to consider a problematic feature of his political realism. There are two issues to be considered, first there is the problem of a kind of absolute political realism that dooms humanity to eternal conflict:

A too consistent political realism would seem to consign society perpetual warfare. If social cohesion is impossible without coercion, and coercion is not possible without the creation of social injustice, and the destruction of injustice without the use of further coercion, are we not in an endless cycle of social conflict?” [18]

On the other hand, there is a kind of political moralism that too easily values the status quo and social peace over progress: “A too uncritical glorification of co-operation and mutuality therefore results in the acceptance of traditional injustices and the preference for more subtle types of coercion to the more overt types.” [19] . An adequate political morality must do justice to both the practical realities of a society and the moral underpinnings of society. Moralism cannot totally eliminate coercion and injustice, but can help in trying to strike the balance. [20]

In the end, Niebuhr argues for a kind of practical accommodation in which a wise society minimizes the element of coercion and maximizes the element of cooperation reducing to a minimum the element of coercion only in the furtherance of certain important social aims. Where issues of justice and social equality are concerned, it may be that violence and coercion are morally justifiable. [21] The limitations of this approach are encapsulated in the title of Alister MacIntyre’s book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? [22] What seems obviously rational and justifiable to a professor at a theological seminary may not seem either relational or justifiable to a lawyer in San Diego.

In a long and important section of MMIS, Niebuhr analyzes the specific views of Ghandi with his version of non-violent resistance and understanding of its limits, and concludes that, while non-violence may not always be an available tactic, it is the best way forward in the quest for lasting social change. [23] According to Niebuhr, there is no other area of political life two which religion plays a larger role than in developing habits of non-violent resistance: [24]

The discovery of elements of common human frailty in the foe and, concomitantly, the appreciation of all human life as possessing transcendent worth, creates attitudes which transcend social conflict and thus mitigate its cruelties. It binds human beings together by reminding them of the common roots and similar character of both their vices and their virtues. [25]

There is probably no sentence of MMIS that we Americans are more in need of internalizing in the entire of Niebuhr’s work.

The Conflict between Individual and Social Morality

Niebuhr’s view of humanity and of human society results in the view that human society inevitably involves some degree of conflict—a view shared by the author of this blog. There is no possibility of the achievement of a perfect society within human history, and as long as we human beings live together some will discover inequities and injustice that need to be eliminated. The question is not “How do we eliminate conflict” but rather “How do we minimize conflict?” Niebuhr therefore believes that there is an irreconcilable conflict between “the needs of society and the imperatives of a sensitive conscience” between politics and political life and personal morality ethics. [26]

Morality is part of the inner life of individual human persons, whereas political life involves the “necessities of social life”. [27] The highest ideal of society is justice, while the highest ideal of the individual is unselfishness. [28]Once again, we see the implicit acceptance by Niebuhr of the modern distinction between the freedom of the human spirit and the determinism of material reality—a distinction that automatically regulates human moral and ethical concerns to the subjective. What is left for the religious and moral imagination is the perfection of subjective human interiors. “Moral imagination” makes individuals aware of and sympathetic to the needs of others. It may also render more moderate the use of force in a society where many individuals hold common moral views against such behavior. It cannot, however, eliminate the reality of conflict.

According to Niebuhr, religious idealism fails to adequately appreciate the tension between personal ethics and political life. Love is a personal virtue and is effective in smaller social units, but love as a social ideal is inevitably diminished in larger social groups. [29] We are left where the study began—with an inevitable difference between personal morality and the public life of societies where struggle and conflict reign. The selfishness of groups must be regarded as inevitable and can be checked only by an assertion of political, social or physical power. Moral goodwill can reduce the severity of the inevitable conflict, but not eliminate it.

In closing, Niebuhr stresses the importance of social issues for our age. It is no longer feasible for individuals to think that they can focus on their own perfection and cultivation. At the same time it is important not to get carried away into social idealism. Idealism must be tempered by a realism that moderates, but does not destroy its vision.


In my young adulthood Niebuhr was both a hero and strong influence. About two years ago, I picked up MMIS and reread it. It was in that rereading that I saw clearly the flaws in his approach, flaws which to some degree he overcame in later works. Frankly, his work was too often used to justify immoral behavior from the War in Viet Nam to the unethical and probably illegal antics of James Comey, to the deceitfulness and lies that regularly emanate from our political elite in Washington. Finally, the world view in which he lived and tacitly accepted was already, but the time he wrote, undermined by advances in science and especially physics. We will turn to that new world view and its implications in the next blog on Alfred North Whitehead.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethic and Politics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1932, 2001), hereinafter, “MMIS”.

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Volumes I & II (Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press, 1941, 1996).

[3] Once again, I would be remiss if I did not indicate the value and reliance of this blog on an Article found at Strong Reading “Niebuhr, Reinhold, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A study in Ethics and Politics” (June 10, 2010), at (downloaded June 27, 2022. The entirety of what follows is deeply impacted by and follows this analysis. I gave up counting how many times that Niebuhr uses the word revolution in MMIS.

[4] MMIS, at 170-171

[5] Id, at 171-172.

[6] Id, at 172-173. I think this is one point at which Niebuhr clearly leaves a connection with the Christian tradition in MMIS. From the beginning, Christians have regarded violence, even necessary violence as intrinsically suspect, which is why, for example, in the area of war “Just War Theory” evolved.

[7] Id, at 173. I disagree with this aspect of Niebuhr’s analysis.

[8] Id, at 179. Once again, the experience of the French, Russian, Chinese and other revolutionary movements do not render obvious that this is possible.

[9] Id, at 184.

[10] Id, at 184-185 and ff.

[11] Id, at 191ff.

[12] Id, at 200

[13] Id, at 209.

[14] Id, at 211.

[15] Id, at 212.

[16] Id, at 217.

[17] Id, at 196; see also 191.

[18] Id, at 231.

[19] Id. At 233.

[20] Id.

[21] Id, at 234.

[22] Alister MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN, University of Notre Dame Press, 1988). It is my intention to review this important work when we reach that point in this series of blogs.

[23] Id, at 242-248. In the early stages of working on this blog, I read a Ghandi’s autobiography. At some point in the future we will investigate his important example and thought.

[24] Id, at 254.

[25] Id, at 254-255.

[26] Id, at 257.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id, at 262.