Chris Harman


How wars can lead to revolution

(27 October 2001)

From Socialist Worker, No.1772, 27 October 2001.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“In a Western democracy if you lose touch with your people then you lose elections. In a monarchy you lose your head.” The words were those of Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the US. Revolution usually seems to most people a distant prospect. It is easy to conclude that all that we can do is resign ourselves to what exists, at most pushing for marginal reforms.

Anything else, we are told from all sides, is “impractical” and “utopian”. These ideas persist among those sections of the anti-war movement which urge existing rulers to get together through the United Nations or some international court to arrive at a “just solution” to the problems that beset Afghanistan and the Middle East.

It is these very rulers whose machinations have led to the devastation of Afghanistan and turned the whole of the Middle East into a powder keg. Nothing is more impractical and utopian than to expect them suddenly to become agents of peace. The history of the last 100 years, by contrast, shows that the very horror of war can unleash revolutionary upheaval.

In 1903 Japan and Tsarist Russia fought a bitter war for imperialist control of north eastern China. Two years later revolution swept through the defeated Russian Empire. In 1914 all the European powers joined in the mass slaughter of the First World War. By February 1917 revolution overthrew the Russian Tsar and brought the working class to power, led by the Bolsheviks in October. The German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires collapsed in 1918. It was a similar story in the Second World War.

The war that had broken out in 1939 between the Western European powers had expanded to include every major state in the world within two years. By 1943 and 1944 a left wing resistance movement had arisen that came close to producing revolutionary change in Italy, Greece and France, and three years later a revolutionary army took Beijing.

In 1948 Israeli armies defeated Arab armies including Egypt in Palestine. Four years later discontent within the Egyptian army led to the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a nationalist, anti-imperialist government led by Abdul Nasser. In 1956 Britain, France and Israel attacked this government, with British planes bombing Egyptian cities. A wave of unrest swept the Middle East, leading in 1958 to the overthrow and public hanging of the pro-British monarch in Iraq.

From 1962 onwards Portuguese fascism waged vicious wars in its African colonies of Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau. In 1974-5 its inability to win these wars led to revolution in Portugal itself. In each case war acted inadvertently as the midwife of revolution. That was never how it seemed when war broke out. The first impact of war was usually to produce waves of jingoism among people who had hardly thought about politics before and got their ideas from the mass media.

Opponents of war could feel isolated by the apparently unstoppable barbarism around them. So in 1914 the great German-Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg was at one point close to suicide.

This changed as the war itself disrupted people’s old ways of living and brought them up against all the harsh realities of capitalist society-the horrific death toll at the front, soaring prices and longer working hours at home, and profiteering by those who preached national unity.

If the present war drags on, the centre of revolutionary upheaval will be the region stretching from the eastern Mediterranean to the Bay of Bengal. Bitter disputes between India and Pakistan over the future of Afghanistan could easily aggravate their conflict over Kashmir and undermine Pakistan’s military dictator.

Even more dangerous from the point of view of Western capitalism is the situation in the Middle East. The rulers of the oil-rich states in the Arabian Peninsula resorted in the past to a system of divide and rule.

They used a small portion of their oil revenues to provide guaranteed jobs and a sort of welfare state for the native-born population. They used vast numbers of immigrant and migrant workers from Egypt, Palestine, the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines to do the dirty and backbreaking work.

But a decade of economic crisis has undermined this system. National income per head in the most important of these states, Saudi Arabia, has slumped to a quarter of its old figure. Jobs are no longer guaranteed, even for the educated middle classes, and there is poverty right next to the opulent palaces of the rulers.

In Egypt, the most important non oil producing state, things are even worse. The “neo-liberal’ policies pursued by the government have enabled a very small layer to wallow in luxury. But there is unrelenting poverty among the peasantry and growing unemployment in the working class areas.

Even the middle classes who rely on state employment suffer impoverishment. Until now vicious repression has managed to keep the lid on any overt expression of discontent. But this is decreasingly effective. When the lid blows off a highly repressive system, it usually does so explosively.

This is what happened with the last great revolution in the Middle East, that in Iran in 1978-9. What began as protests by groups of intellectuals, students and religious figures grew within a few months into the action of millions of poor people and, most importantly, the power of the workers in the oil industry. The country’s ruler, the Shah, was forced to flee as sections of his army switched sides.

In such revolutionary upsurges, not only do people give expression to their discontents, they also begin to try to work out new ways of running society. Ruling classes then try to use the influence of old ideas to prevent people achieving their aims.

So, for instance, in Germany after 1918 the capitalist class strove to dissolve the workers’ councils and re-establish its rule, murdering thousands of left wing activists in the process. In Iran after 1978 a section of the capitalist class was able to achieve the same goal, this time working with part of the Islamic establishment to give a religious colouration to its counter-revolution.

Islam is not intrinsically more reactionary than any other religion. People often turn to religion because it offers them a message of hope against oppression. But because the message is wrapped in obscure, religious language, it can be easily misused by those who want to blunt and divert the struggle against oppression.

This is very important today in Saudi Arabia, where the only overt expression of opposition is through religious channels. Dissent can easily slip over into admiration for Bin Laden, as he uses religious language to preach the overthrow of the corrupt monarchy, opposition to the US troops and support for the Palestinians.

Similar ideas in Egypt in the 1980s and early 1990s led to groups committed to armed action gaining a big following among students.

They saw change as coming from coups at the top of society aimed at purifying it of “corrupt” influences, not from mass struggle from below. The state was easily able to isolate armed groups, execute the leaders and confine thousands of followers to concentration camps in the desert. Today these organisations have been destroyed, but their ideas still have considerable influence.

They can only be challenged by those who offer a clear revolutionary alternative without providing any support for the existing state and its repression. That means a left that sees things in terms of the struggle of all the world’s exploited classes, of all religions or none, against capitalism and imperialism. An anti-capitalist conference in Beirut next month is one sign of the re-emergence of this in the Middle East.

Such ideas can gain a mass base if any of the Arab regimes begin to crack apart. Industrial workers are a minority of the region’s population. But they are concentrated at strategically important points. Once they fight for their own interests they can provide a beacon of hope for all the oppressed.

Building the revolutionary anti-capitalist left in the rest of the world helps this process. Even when the London media ignores our anti-war demonstrations, they will often feature on TV broadcasts across the Middle East.

The more people see that there is an international anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movement, the more they will be attracted to its message. The horror of war is once again a breeding ground for revolution, most clearly in the Middle East.

Last updated on 9 December 2009