No. 1 in our Tactics & Strategies discussion series—
How can a revolution succeed when our rulers have well-armed and well-manned militaries at their command?
THOSE WHO rule will not give up their power peacefully.
Try to disrupt one of their events–like meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund–and our rulers are willing to mobilize thousands of cops, shut down half a city and attack with clubs, tear gas and pepper spray.
Imagine what they might do in a revolution–if millions of workers attempted to seize control of the factories, mines, hospitals and schools and run them democratically.
Perhaps that’s why socialists are often confronted with the question, isn’t the state all-powerful?
LEFT: Poster produced during the Portuguese Revolution of 1975 (“carnation Revolution”), which saw a great deal of fraternizing between the insurgent military and the civilian population.
This seems to be an unsolvable paradox. Piecemeal reforms can’t change the fundamental nature of a society based on the exploitation of the many by the few. Yet revolution will be met with superior force–and defeated.
The best way we can hope for, the argument goes, is minor changes that don’t threaten the power of the corporations and banks–and the military and police that back them.
But there have been many successful revolutions around the world that have toppled seemingly all-powerful regimes. The Shah of Iran in 1979 and the “Big Brother” regimes of Eastern Europe in 1989 come to mind, though there are many other examples.
The question of whether the state is all-powerful is based on a misconception of what revolutions are and the conditions that give rise to them. Revolutions succeed not because those who are rebelling have superior arms.
If that were true, a revolution could never win. Revolutions succeed–or have a change of succeeding–because of two interrelated factors.
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ON THE one hand, millions of ordinary people–through a process of mass strikes, demonstrations and political ferment–are convinced that society can’t continue in the old way.
And one the other hand, the ruling class is split, on the defensive and unclear about which direction to go. In mass upheavals, the ruling class’s weakest link is the armed forces.
Repression can only work if soldiers are disciplined to carry out their orders. But in circumstances of deep social upheaval, this isn’t a foregone conclusion–for the simple reason that many soldiers are themselves workers.
A mass movement that is confident in itself can fight for the hearts and minds of soldiers, thereby splitting the military and winning soldiers over to the side of the revolution. The “all-powerful” state then becomes temporarily paralyzed–and overrun by millions of ordinary people who months before never dreamed they had any power to change society.
Many a dictator has been toppled in this way–from Russia’s Tsar in 1917 to the Ceausescu regime in Romania in 1989.
The British Marxist Tony Cliff described the process in the 1975 Portuguese revolution:
[T]he families living in the shantytown of Bairro da Boavista in the outskirts of [the capital of] Lisbon took over a housing estate that had stood empty for three years…
The officer in charge…faced with determined opposition from the whole community, followed the routine practice of any operation in the colonial wars of Africa and went straight to what he thought was the weakest link, an old widow who had just moved with her six sons to a two-bedroom flat with electricity, water and toilet.
She replied, “You better shoot me right here. All my life I have had the earth for a floor. At least I will die on a proper floor.”
The officer stood there for a moment. Outside the men, women and children who had assembled to resist any eviction were speaking with the soldiers: “This could be your shanty town! Remember that you too are the people! Turn the guns on the speculators, and not on your brothers and sisters!”
The officer understood and, taking the company with him, left the estate.
Such scenes are common occurrences in revolutions. They sum up what revolutions are all about–in the words of the great Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, “The direct intervention of the masses in historic events…The forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”
First published in the April 28, 2000, issue of Socialist Worker.
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