Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Moral force or physical force?

(June 2001)

From Socialist Review, No.253, June 2001.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Debates about violence, writes Chris Harman, should target the real enemy

London’s May Day protests were an amazing victory for the anti-capitalist movement. The police and the media ran a massive scare campaign, complete with claims that the protesters would be ‘using bombs’. And on the day 6,000 heavily armed riot police surrounded a smaller number of demonstrators, holding them prisoner for eight hours. Yet the overall effect was to push to the centre of media debate, for 24 hours at least, the arguments over anti-capitalism.

However, the event also reopened vigorous debates about violence within the anti-capitalist movement. George Monbiot, who has done much to build the anti-capitalist movement in Britain, used the Guardian on the morning of May Day to denounce the ‘violence’ of ‘a handful of aggressive and overbearing men’ who had ‘dominated ... planning meetings.’

His central argument was that violence could never be right because it could never work: ‘If advanced capitalism is the most violent of all political systems, then violent conflict with that system is bound to fail.’

This is an argument you often hear. It is usually combined with claims about the successes of past non-violent direct action movements, like those of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. But neither example lives up to the claims made for it.

Martin Luther King’s movement used non-violent tactics. But the aim was not to convert the Southern segregationists and the Ku Klux Klan by mere moral persuasion. It was, rather, to persuade the US government to intervene, using those embodiments of organised violence, the US federal forces, against the segregationists. When this tactic ceased to work, the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) adopted the slogan of armed self defence.

Gandhi represented only one element of a very broad Indian liberation movement, most of which was prepared to use violence when it seemed necessary. The high points of struggle included strikes, armed attacks on police stations, the derailing of trains, bombings, riots, and even, during the Second World War, an attempt to establish an army to fight on the Japanese side against Britain. The final action which persuaded Britain to abandon the country was an Indian naval mutiny that Gandhi denounced.

All states are based on armed bodies designed to use the maximum violence against those their rulers decide are enemies – external or internal. Sometimes the level of force they use is relatively small, as when police smash up a demonstration or a picket line. But faced with a really serious threat they will use horrific violence, even when their opponents insist on their commitment to peaceful, ‘constitutional’ methods. This was shown vividly in Chile in 1973.

Any movement that stands for revolutionary social change but rules out the use of force when necessary condemns itself to destruction and its supporters to unnecessary suffering. Monbiot’s claim that there is no way to beat the violence of capitalism ignores its dependence on wider social processes.

The power of any ruling class rests on economic power and ideological dominance, as well as its monopoly of physical force. Revolutionary situations arise when mass movements involving millions of people lead to the near paralysis of the state. There are mass strikes, factory occupations, mutinies, the formation of workers’ and soldiers’ councils, huge street demonstrations – and, as a result, deep splits in the ruling class. At such points full revolution is possible if the mass movement is prepared to use armed force to disarm those fighting forces still committed to the old order. When this is done decisively the level of actual violence is invariably much less than those that follow the state machine is left free to wreak its vengeance on the mass movement.

It does not follow, however, that violent methods are the best way to advance the movement at every, or even at most, points in its development. To fail to see this can be as disastrous as refusing to ever use force against the violence of the state.

Take the example of Italy a quarter of a century ago. Through most of the 1950s and 1960s the police had been able to prevent most workers’ struggles gaining any momentum by simply battering them off the streets. Then in 1968-69 big, initially non-violent movements arose among students and workers, and they reacted to police violence by vigorously fighting back. As the police retreated in front of them, very wide sections of workers began to feel confident to fight on their own behalf for the first time. Force was effective against the police and the employers because it was the force of a huge, expanding mass movement.

But there were small ‘autonomist’ groups of students and workers who, carried away by hatred of the police and the excitement of street fighting, came to see violence as the key, not the mass movement. Their approach became disastrous in the late 1970s when the powerful Communist Party used its influence to end the wave of workers’ struggles. The autonomist groups believed they could reignite the struggle simply by escalating the level of violence of movements that were detached from the main sections of the working class.

The effect was to drive many workers to accept lies about the far left from the media and the Communist Party. A wave of repression swept thousands of activists from the previous period into prison, and the level of workers’ struggle declined still further. The situation with the anti-capitalist movement today is not yet like that of either phase of the Italian experience. But there are certain lessons we can draw.

The movement is only just taking off in Britain, and it is doing so at a time when the organised working class is still recovering very slowly from the defeats it suffered in the 1980s. In such a situation, violent actions by small groups can only have a negative effect in making it easier for the state and the media to depict the left as the cause of all violence.

But at a certain point very large masses of people are going to react to the sort of treatment meted out by the police on 1 May by fighting back, and the task will be not to condemn their bitterness but to direct it.

Short of that, some young people witnessing the behaviour of the police for the first time can be attracted to autonomist notions of actions designed to ‘get our own back’. There are important political arguments to be had inside the movement about the inappropriateness of such a response. But that is a very different matter to launching swingeing attacks on them in the pages of liberal daily newspapers.

Revolution is possible if the mass movement is prepared to use armed force

Last updated on 26 December 2009