There's been a lot of celebration in the UK news recently of the Suffragette movement, since it's 100 years since the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which granted the vote to (some) women.
Someone I know recently complained about the lack of focus in the associated discussion about the Suffragists. While I don't have the sufficient historical knowledge to offer a comprehensive distinction between the two groups, a rough division seems to be that while the 'ettes were prepared to engage in both violent and non-violent criminality to forward the cause, the 'ists wanted to do things within the letter of the law as it was.
I'm inclined to think that an absolute prohibition on law-breaking isn't something we should take very seriously. There can be deeply unjust laws; laws that violate justice so comprehensively that they are, for want of a better word, evil. But there are interesting questions that can be - and have been - asked on the legitimacy of law-breaking in the name of broader justice.
For instance, we might wonder whether, in a case where there is serious but non-comprehensive discrimination, is it only the unjust laws themselves that can be broken, Or does even a single unjust law make the law itself an ass? In which case it would be acceptable to break apparently unrelated laws in the name of justice. Part of the issue here - an issue of particular problem for those who would restrict law-breaking to a single unjust law - is the inter-connected nature of injustice. Woman who broke minor laws as suffragettes were treated excessively harshly. While injustice can be more serious in some areas of a person's life than others, to be treated unjustly by a social and legal system in any area is to be treated with disregard, disrespect, or worse. At the very least, being the victim of injustice anywhere may well leave people feeling vulnerable to similar liability elsewhere.
A slightly different question, which is to some extent more empirical but which also has some philosophical implications, is the extent to which the two traditions - of violent and non-violent protest - interact with one another. Those who oppose political violence in any form often point to exemplars such as Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, as people who got the job done in a peaceful way. Similarly, my acquaintance's complaint amounted to the claim that the "real" work had been done by the peaceful, law-abiding suffragists.
The empirical question is how far the willingness of the Suffragettes to engage in disruptive, illegal and violent behaviour led to a corresponding willingness on the part of the British state to engage with the non-violent Suffragists. Or how far the violence that existed in India in Gandhi's time led to his acceptability to the representatives of empire.
The philosophical issue this raises - albeit a fairly basic one - is that we cannot just point to the success of non-violent protest as evidence that violence is unnecessary, or even that it is counter-productive. If violence provides the context for non-violence to work, then violence may be a necessary (even if not sufficient) political tool for serious social change in the face of intransigent injustice.
A further question is how far those who are willing to engage in violent protest should be happy with this role. If it turns out that the primary function of violence is to make the 'less extreme' campaigners look like a more attractive option, does that present a problem?
This may depend, of course, on why violence is being adopted. If it is adopted merely to speed things up, then there's no particular reason for worry. But if, as is sometimes the case, the violent have more radical goals than the non-violent, this might well be a cause for concern. That, in turn, will depend on how far we accept a narrative of inexorable progress, where moderate gains are simply steps on the road to the final goal; or a narrative of struggle, where capitulating too early can mean losing hold of the ideal, perhaps for good.