Can we beat the state with non-violent methods? This is the question that emerges in many mass movements and has come up most recently during the student protests and the Tunisian revolt.
People who oppose capitalism rightly hate its violent nature. One of the reasons that people become revolutionaries is because they are sickened by the imperialist wars and brutality of tyrannical governments across the globe.
Then there is the violence of everyday life—people maimed on building sites through negligence and bosses’ greed, people tormented by hunger and cold, people denied medical treatment because of cuts.
And the brutality at the top of the system affects ordinary people. Seemingly random violent acts often have their roots in the distorted values of capitalism and the stress it generates.
Socialists want a completely different world—one based on workers’ power and democratic co-operation, not systematic violence and ruthless competition.
But capitalists will not give up power willingly. Anyone who has seen riot police in action against protesters calling for far less than a revolutionary transformation of society knows this.
Socialists are not violent people. On the other hand, we are not pacifists. To win socialism we need to overthrow capitalism—and non-violence won’t be enough to do it.
We aren’t against all violence in an abstract way—it must be examined in context. Our rulers’ approach to violence is utter hypocrisy.
So under capitalism, state violence is seen as legitimate. At times those at the top encourage one section of the population to turn brutally on another on the basis of skin colour, gender or nationality.
They send millions to die in wars to prop up their power and position.
Yet violence against the state, which is on a far smaller scale, is denounced as illegitimate.
Workers’ movements throughout history have been remarkably peaceful. By contrast, the ruling classes have used the most barbaric means to hang onto power.
Socialists believe that people have a right to resist, and we defend those who fight back against oppression and exploitation. We don’t think the state should have a monopoly on weaponry and force.
So we support the right of workers and all oppressed groups to arm and defend themselves against their oppressors. It would be ridiculous to demand that Palestinians lay down their weapons when the Israeli state uses extreme force, for example.
Reformist socialists and others who have urged a pacifist course have been butchered by the state at certain points. Popular uprisings, demonstrations and elected governments that were deemed to threaten the power of elites have all been met with the utmost brutality.
Non-violent protest isn’t irrelevant. It can win changes and inspire wider movements, as it did with the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960s. But a commitment to purely non-violent resistance can see movements crushed.
Resistance has won profound change, overthrown rulers like Tunisia’s dictator and transformed entire systems. Often it has involved violence because there was no other way to wrench power from the oppressors.
But that doesn’t mean that socialists think that simply using violence is always the way to win.
It is important to support the struggles of the oppressed, but it is also important to debate how they can win. More often than not, violence is forced onto movements because of their weakness.
Looking to violence can all too easily become a substitute to looking to our collective strength as a class. Terrorism, for example, is incapable of beating the system militarily and is often counterproductive.
The extent of violence in the war between classes depends on the relation of forces. In great, decisive class battles, the only bulwark against violence is for the workers to ensure that they have more strength than the employing class—and to be prepared to use it.
But the most important aspect of this, essential in any genuine revolution, is not the brick or the bullet.
It is the political argument with soldiers that they should abandon the ruling class and come over to our side. Clearly the revolt must be on a mass scale for that to be realistic.
Socialist revolution has to be a process “from below”. It must engage the active involvement of millions. The deeper that process, the less violence any revolt will contain—and the more likely it will be to succeed in creating a society that ends violence for good.