Socialist Worker

Are revolutions always violent?

KEVIN OVENDEN challenges the myths about revolutions

Issue No. 1804

FOR MOST people the idea of revolution is closely associated with violence. This message is hammered home in school textbooks, and historical novels and documentaries. There you will find gruesome descriptions of the 'reign of terror' of 1793 during the French Revolution.

But you will find hardly a word about the suppression of the Paris Commune of 1871. More than three times as many people were killed in a much shorter period of time by the forces of 'law and order'. Those who spout most vociferously about the bloodshed of revolution are not pacifists. They are politically committed to society as it is today-the most violent in human history.

It has brought us two world wars in which tens of millions of people have died. There has not been a single year since in which there has not been war somewhere in the world. US president George W Bush announced last week that he is extending his 'war on terror' to include 'pre-emptive strikes' against any country he chooses.

The minority who own the wealth in Britain and other states may preach about the dangers of violence. But they resort to it when their own wealth and power are threatened. Police in supposedly liberal Sweden opened fire on anti-capitalist protesters in Gothenburg last year.

Governments of every stripe in Britain have used violence against strikers. That was true of the 1984-5 miners' strike, where the millionaire-owned press cheered on the police assault. Revolutionary socialists do not create violence. We merely insist that, if workers are not to be blackmailed by the massive organised violence of the ruling class and its state, they have to be prepared to fight back. This is true in any strike. The employers always use forms of violence in an effort to get their way.

They threaten to violently disrupt the lives of workers who strike, or of those who respect picket lines, by sacking them and depriving them of a living. There is only one way for the strikers to protect themselves against such threats-through counter-threats of their own.

But to say force has to be used is not the same as saying bloodshed is inevitable. That depends on the balance of power between the two sides. If there are a couple of workers but ten police at a picket line, there will be bloodshed if the police decide to beat the pickets up.

But if, as at the miners' picket at Saltley Gate 30 years ago, there are 10,000 pickets and only a few hundred police, then little violence is likely. The police will back down-provided the pickets make it clear that they will reply to state violence with force. The history of revolutions bears this out. In the October 1917 revolution in Russia there was very little violence in Petrograd-the centre of the uprising. Only 11 people died. The workers were united and well armed, while their opponents were demoralised and divided, and had few forces at their disposal.

The worst bloodshed occurs not when the workers' movement uses force, but when it sets aside the use of force, leaving its opponents a free hand to assert their power.

In Paris in 1871 the main leaders of the Commune argued it would be wrong to start a civil war by marching against the counter-revolutionary army based just outside the city, even though it was weak. The initiative was left with the defenders of the old order, who waited, built up their strength and then entered Paris, murdering tens of thousands.

China's rulers copied the example of repression in 1989. The student-led democracy movement occupied Tiananmen Square in the capital, Beijing, and was able to win support from workers and some soldiers. But the movement handed the soldiers' rifles back and turned away from forcibly challenging the regime.

The result was that China's rulers were able to re-establish discipline in the army. They sent in marshalled troops from outside the capital and used them to massacre the protesters. The capitalist system is capable of extreme violence even when the workers' movement is not challenging it.

Moderate leaders of the working class in Germany after the First World War argued that it would be wrong for workers to overthrow big business. But big business found it could not be profitable unless it destroyed the working class movement. In 1933 it turned to Hitler, and millions of people died as a result. Workers' leaders did not resist.

There is only one way to minimise bloodshed at decisive moments in history. It is for the workers' movement to ensure it has more force at its disposal than the capitalist class, and to be prepared to use it.

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Sat 15 Jun 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1804
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