Chris Harman

Revolution in the 21st Century

9: Capitalism and violence

The anti-capitalist columnist George Monbiot has articulated an argument you often hear. Writing in the Guardian in May 2000, he wrote ‘If advanced capitalism is the most violent of all political systems then violent conflict with that system is bound to fail.’ Such arguments are usually combined with claims about the success of non-violent direct action movements in the past, like those of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. However, neither example lives up to the claims made for it.

Martin Luther King’s movement did use non-violent tactics. But the aim was not to convert the segregationists of the US South and the Ku Klux Klan. Rather, it was to persuade the US government to intervene against the segregationists, using an embodiment of organised violence, the US federal forces. When this tactic ceased to work the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee broke with King and adopted the slogan of armed self defence.

Gandhi represented one element in a broad liberation movement, most of which was prepared to use violence if it seemed necessary. The highest point of struggle, the Quit India Movement of 1942, included strikes, armed attacks on police stations, the derailing of trains, bombings and riots. One of the Indian leaders, Bose, established an army to fight on the Japanese side against the British. The final action that persuaded the British to abandon the country was an Indian naval mutiny in Bombay in 1946 that was denounced by Gandhi.

All states depend on armed bodies prepared to use violence against those their rulers’ decree as enemies – external or internal. Sometimes the level of force is relatively small, as when police smash up a demonstration or a picket line. But faced with a serious threat such forces will use horrific violence even when their opponents insist on a commitment to peaceful methods as Chile in 1973 demonstrated. 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 the system’s dependence on wider social processes. The position of any ruling class rests on its 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. They involve mass strikes, factory occupations, mutinies, the formation of workers’ and soldiers’ councils, huge demonstrations and deep splits in the ruling class. Revolution is possible at such points if the mass movement is prepared to use armed force to disarm those military and police units still committed to the old order.

Revolutionary ferment invariably has its effect on the rank and file of the armed forces. After all, they are people from working class or lower middle class backgrounds and have either been conscripted or joined because the military seems a secure job. They can hardly avoid being influenced by the insurgent mood affecting their brothers, sisters, parents and former school friends. But the strict discipline imposed by the officers and NCOs prevents them giving open expression to their feelings. Those that threaten to disobey orders can expect the harshest punishment – during normal times, long sentences in military prisons, during wars or states of siege, the firing squad. So in Chile in 1973, naval NCOs who showed sympathy with the mass movement were thrown into prison and tortured. In Germany in 1917, when sailors organised a peaceful strike, the officers listened to their complaints, asked them to disperse and then organised a squad to arrest and execute those they considered the ring leaders.

Any successful revolution depends on the rank and file of the armed forces being prepared to use their arms to disarm their officers and dissolve the most reactionary military units. The key moment in the establishment of the Paris Commune in 1871 came when a group of working class women persuaded soldiers moving heavy guns to hand them over to the people. In Russia in February 1917 three days spent confronting mass demonstrations left many soldiers sympathetic to the rising and some of them took the initiative to arrest their own officers. In Barcelona in July 1936, when the generals initiated a coup to impose fascism across Spain, it was the resistance of poorly armed militias in Barcelona set up by anarchist union the CNT and the Marxist party, the POUM, that persuaded a section of the army, the Assault Guards, to join the resistance.

In each case, the initiative from workers outside the army was the key to giving the rank-and-file soldiers the confidence to take a stand against their reactionary officers. They would only take such a stand if they felt the workers movement was going to go all the way – not merely exert pressure on the army, but join with the soldiers to break the control of the officers and prevent punishment of the soldiers. That did not necessitate massive force. One hundred armed privates can confront one armed officer with minimal violence. But it does require a clear determination to use force if there is any resistance. Non-violence is not an option for soldiers intent on a successful mutiny, for it leaves the officers free to organise violent action against them.

When the most active sections of the masses and the minority among the rank-and-file of the armed forces are organised to act decisively the level of real violence – of deaths and injuries – is invariably small. By contrast, when the advanced sections are disorganised or pacifist feelings prevail the level of violence from the other side will be very great.

What is vital is the level of success in drawing the most militant sections of workers into a revolutionary organisation with wide influence not only in the workplaces and localities, but also in the armed forces. Only such an organisation can set out to coordinate the actions of those in the barracks who secretly sympathise with the revolutionary goals of the wider movement.

Last updated on 5 October 2016