Socialist Worker

Can we beat the might of the state?

by Charlie Kimber asks if we can ever win against the forces lined up against us
Issue No. 1818

AS revolutionaries we do not simply want to win a few small changes in society. We want to run the world in a completely different way. We think it is necessary to smash the presently existing state. But there's an immediate problem: the other side will do everything in its power to stop us. And they have a lot of power.

Look at the article here. They have all these weapons - and that's just the tip of the iceberg. It leaves out the jets, the submarines, the rifles, the mortars...need I go on? Yet we believe we can defeat them. We do not underestimate the power of the state or the willingness of the ruling class to use this power ruthlessly against 'the enemy within'.

The US ruling class and its allies are prepared to see millions die in order to secure their control of oil supplies. Imagine their response to a movement that threatened all their power. What gives us hope is the nature of socialist revolution. If it was a matter of a few thousand revolutionaries attempting to capture the White House or 10 Downing Street then the forces of the state would be able to deal with it quite easily.

Actions by a small minority can cause a great deal of turmoil - as 11 September showed. But they do not threaten the state itself. US capitalism is not fearful of being militarily overthrown by Al Qaida. But socialist revolution is a mass affair. It involves many millions of workers taking action together. In such circumstances workers have immense potential power. Their first strength is numbers. Workers are the majority in many countries and make up large sections of society in most others.

Usually when we see confrontation between the state and workers it is only one section of the class - one workplace, one industry, one city or region - that is involved. This enables the state to cope by concentrating its forces. But in a mass revolutionary situation workers up and down a country will be mobilised.

This will not be at all easy to deal with. Look at how the government is worrying about having a firefighters' strike at the same time as a possible war in Iraq. There are some 350,000 repressive personnel (police, army, navy, air force) in Britain. They have to deal with a workforce of 28 million plus millions more unemployed, students, youth and pensioners. They certainly could not cope if we all moved together.

The second source of workers' potential strength is that the base of revolution will be the workplaces where workers form collectives. As in Russia in 1917 or France in 1968, workers will take over factories, offices, hospitals, schools, oil refineries, telecommunications and internet service providers. Transport will come under workers' control. Nothing and nobody will move without workers sanctioning it.

The third source of potential strength is the nature of the state machine itself. In normal times the state apparatus is the faithful servant of the ruling class. It is headed by people whose whole interest and loyalties are with the present system. But at the base the state depends on people whose loyalties may waver at key moments. Send these into action against a really serious movement and the outcome is not at all certain.

Imagine working class soldiers, who joined up to escape the dole or the drabness of their lives, sent to attack a movement involving their schoolmates, their brothers, mothers and grannies. You can see why the state forces sometimes split.

All these factors explain why apparently unbeatable state machines can fall apart, sometimes at breathtaking speed. The Shah of Iran had the backing of the US, all the latest weaponry and a murderous secret police service. His regime collapsed in 1979. What began as a protest by groups of intellectuals, students and religious figures grew within a few months into the actions of millions of poor people.

Most importantly, the power of the workers in the oil industry was mobilised. The Shah was forced to flee as sections of his army switched sides. The regimes in Eastern Europe had no lack of military strength, nuclear back-up or secret policemen. They controlled the media and most of cultural life.

But one by one they fell apart from 1989 onwards. South Africa's apartheid regime was armed to the teeth and used torture and murder to back up its control of the black population. But it could not withstand the revolt in the townships and, crucially, the organised strength of the black working class.

The Indonesian regime of Suharto was surrounded by goons equipped with the most modern anti-riot technology. But when the people rose up in large numbers they swept Suharto out of office in 1998.

In all these cases - Iran, Eastern Europe, South Africa and Indonesia - the result of the collapse of the old regime was certainly not socialism. But they all illustrate the fragility of apparently invulnerable regimes. We are many, they are few, as the poet Shelley said. For all the problems we face, that still remains true.

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Sat 21 Sep 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1818
Share this article


Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.