Can the army be on the side of the people in a revolutionary situation? That’s a question posed sharply by events in Egypt.
Some believe that the military stand above politics and can be a “neutral force” in times of upheaval. They hope that generals will defend the streets from the secret police and others aligned with dictatorships.
It is true that sometimes sections of the army can be persuaded to stand alongside workers in revolt. There are even occasions where junior officers play a role in revolutions.
But it is wrong to think of the heads of the military as anything other than members of the ruling class.
They attend the same schools, clubs and parties as the rest of the elite. Though they sometimes sharply disagree, they are part of the group of top politicians, industrialists and bankers who run society.
The Russian revolutionary Lenin wrote that the state is made up of “special bodies of armed men” that protect this ruling class from challenge.
The police are unlikely to switch sides. Their role is to issue orders to working class people on a daily basis. They enjoy their power and privileges, knowing they derive from their role in society.
Most of the time the rank and file of the army can be relied upon to carry out their orders—but not always. In times of great upheaval, mass movements can pressure them.
Soldiers’ lives are dominated by orders issued by “superiors”. A strict hierarchy attempts to condition them to accept these without question.
This acceptance can change when a crisis—caused by war or political turmoil—wracks society. This is particularly true of conscript armies, where thousands are wrenched from working class communities and forced into service.
A number of examples from history show this. The slaughter of the First World War led to huge discontent across Europe, with revolutions breaking out in Russia and Germany. Army revolts played a key part in both.
In Russia in 1917, troops turned on their officers and refused orders to fire on workers protesting against the dictatorship of the Tsar.
Instead, soldiers joined protests and helped set up an alternative government—soviets, or councils of workers and soldiers.
In Germany in 1919, sailors mutinied after admirals ordered them to make “one last push” in the war. Armed sailors marched alongside striking dockers. As the revolt spread, the German ruler, the Kaiser, fled and the war was ended.
More recently, a left wing military coup against the fascist regime in Portugal in 1974 unleashed a year and a half of revolutionary action. Soldiers, workers and peasants organised together to fight for a different kind of world.
A student demonstration against the Stalinist regime in Hungary in 1956 led to a workers’ uprising. The soldiers joined the people as they purged the secret police and brought down the government.
The rulers of the Soviet Union sent tanks to crush the rising. But the Hungarians fraternised with Russian troops, who did not want to fire on the people.
Russian leaders then withdrew their tanks, before invading again.
This time they did not allow the people to speak to the soldiers. Some troops were even told they were going to Germany to fight fascists.
The Russian army crushed the Hungarian revolution.
No movement for change can simply rely on the army.
History is replete with examples of where the army has been used to put down risings.
Inside every army and police force there are specialist groups picked out to carry out the most extreme repression. They will not just disappear.
Unless they, and those who issue their orders, are smashed, they will prepare for a counter-revolution.
For instance, one right wing army battalion in Portugal managed to break the hold of left wing regiments.
This led to the dissipation of revolutionary confidence and the restoration of order.
The most important factors in any revolution are the strength of the movement from below, and whether or not the most militant sections of the population are grouped together in an organisation.
This can create the necessary force to crack open the forces that normally defend the system, and bring about fundamental change.