For many, popular uprisings go wrong the moment those fighting back pick up a gun. Any sign of “militarisation” marks a turning point where a brilliant rebellion turns into a tragic civil war.
More in sorrow than in anger, it will be argued that the revolt lost its way—and now the only priority is to stop the bloodshed. If only the rebels had stayed peaceful and “non-violent”.
But this view is not borne out by history. Revolts very rarely take up arms as a result of a conscious strategic decision. Instead, they are forced into it by circumstance.
Every capitalist state rests in the last instance on the use of force—the iron fist concealed in the velvet glove, as the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci called it.
Under normal circumstances we are offered the velvet glove, where the ruling class rules by consent rather than by force. But when the state is threatened, the iron fist, the full force of its repressive apparatus, shows itself.
So in Chile in 1973, for example, the working class had begun to create structures and institutions that called into question the very existence of the state. The response was brutal. The army launched an all-out assault on the workers, and General Pinochet seized power in a coup.
Pinochet said he was fighting “the enemy within”—anyone who posed a threat to the established order. In the next decade Margaret Thatcher used the same phrase about striking miners in Britain as the state mobilised against them.
So when Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad announced he would use chemical and biological weapons against “foreign elements” in the opposition movement, it is a more extreme version of the same rhetoric.
If we know that capitalism will use its arms against us, then we cannot avoid the question of the defence of the movement. In Syria today, a mass movement that began as a peaceful civic movement for reform has armed itself in response to the murderous assault by the Syrian state.
This is no automatic recipe for defeat. The vast array of weaponry possessed by states has not always proven sufficient to crush a risen people.
History offers us many moments, however brief, where the balance of forces has not gone the state’s way. These run from the 1871 Paris Commune to the Russian Revolution, and from the Spanish Revolution of 1936 to the Arab Spring today.
For reasons specific to each moment the mass of ordinary people refused to be ruled in the old way. Then a mass movement erupts, as it has most recently in Syria, and all sorts of new forces and ideas are unleashed.
In the Paris Commune, the workers started to create a new world within the city walls. They formed the first ever workers’ government, based on instantly recallable representatives.
But they were also forced to defend themselves from the invading Prussian army and their own capitalist government. To do this, they formed the National Guard. It was more than an army—it was at once an army, an organisation of the working class, and a state.
The Commune’s problem was not at all that it was too quick to take up arms. “Paris armed was the revolution armed,” as Karl Marx said. On the contrary, the Paris Commune was defeated because it did not directly challenge the capitalist state and its army.
The Spanish Civil War is another example. The leaders of the military coup against the Republican government of Spain in July 1936 were confident that they would win in a matter of days. Instead, the Civil War lasted three years.
It was the resistance of the workers’ militias that changed the situation. They had few arms to match the military. But what enabled them to hold off the professional soldiers was their conviction—their collective determination.
They were not fighting to defend a government but to continue the transformation of their society—a revolution based on workers’ democracy and social justice.
The tragedy of Spain is not that the workers took up arms and fought against the fascists, but that they were forced to lay down their weapons.
The Communist Party and others forced the mass democratic organs of resistance to hand their arms over to a government committed to the defence of capitalist power.
Today, there are similar calls for a ceasefire in Syria. But at this moment and in these conditions, that can only mean the disarming of the movement. This would expose it to the barbaric revenge of the state.
We must realise that the violence of a state under threat is a sign of its weakness—of the level of crisis and challenge it faces.
Of course, that does not mean that we advocate armed struggle as a strategy. To defend all revolutions and their advances is fundamental. However, our most powerful weapons as a class are not rifles, or even the streets, but our collective control over production.
A revolution, after all, is a transfer of power from the tiny ruling class to the vast majority of people. It is not just a firefight but a transformation of everyday life.
How can a revolution win over the army?
If we want to defeat the capitalist state, then the question of the army is key. As we have seen, the armed forces are the state’s last line of defence when it is threatened.
The left often relies on the army dividing in a revolution, and the rank and file soldiers turning against their officers. This does happen, but it is not automatic.
Every fighting force consists overwhelmingly of working class people who have signed up to the services. A glance at the list of the British and US dead in Afghanistan and their background will leave little doubt about that. The death of an officer, by contrast, is a rare event that merits a special item on the evening news.
Yet organising in the army is not as simple as it would be in any other workplace. Joining the army is followed by a process of indoctrination. The German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht said that modern militarism “arms the people against the people itself, forcing the workers to become oppressors.”
He said soldiers become “enemies and murderers of their own class comrades and friends, of their parents, sisters and children, murderers of their own past and future”.
As Hollywood films show, recruits are broken, humiliated, and physically and psychologically separated from their own world and their own class.
Ideologically, they are prepared first of all to “defend” the state against external enemies. Their faces change over time but are always an “other”, whether it’s Russia during the Cold War or Arabs today.
But every army is also preparing, if it comes to it, to use the “iron fist” Gramsci described against its own people if they threaten the state and the system.
This does not mean there is no hope, though. The issue, after all, is not whether the mass movement can beat the state’s military machine on its own terms. If this were the case then the revolutionaries would be very unlikely to win.
But we have other weapons—our ideas. In a mass uprising, we don’t have to fight all their soldiers—instead we can seek to persuade them.
If the army is broken, it will be because powerful political organisations of the class were able to win them over by offering a different future.
Arms and the People: Popular Movements and the Military from the Paris Commune to the Arab Spring, edited by Mike Gonzalez and Houman Barekat, is forthcoming from Pluto Press.
For more on the Paris Commune, Karl Marx’s classic The Civil War in France is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Ring 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk