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Can mass action topple the state?

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Issue 1759

They have the police and army…

Can mass action topple the state?

By Helen Shooter

THE ITALIAN state used ferocious repression against demonstrators at the G8 summit last weekend. It would be capable of much greater violence if the whole system was at stake. Some people can conclude that mass action can never beat the state. But at significant times in our history the apparently impregnable state structures have dissolved almost overnight under the pressure of a crisis in society.

Most of the time state forces carry out their “duty”. Ordinary soldiers, many of them from working class backgrounds, may grumble at the conditions they live in or at the privileges their officers get. But they fear to revolt and do not question the role they are told to play. They rightly fear the threat of retaliation by their superiors. This can change rapidly when there is a deep crisis in society. The Russian revolutionary Lenin argued there are two conditions for the state to crack apart.

The first is that the crisis is such that the ruling class can no longer rule in the old way. The second is that the mass of people will no longer accept living in the old way. There have been great social crises in the last century. The First World War created a huge crisis in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1918. The ruling classes were split over how to continue to wage a war that they had thought would lead to quick, easy victory.

At the same time the war created deep bitterness in society-the horror of death and destruction on a vast scale, and acute food shortages which led to widespread hunger.

War and revolt

IN 1917 troops in Russia mutinied against the Tsar’s orders to crush workers who were striking and demonstrating. Many more deserted from the front. Workers and soldiers marched side by side. Many of them took part in struggle for the first time.

They brought down the tyrant Tsar and a monarchy that had ruled for 500 years. Workers and soldiers in the city of Petrograd formed a “soviet” or workers’ council, which effectively governed the city, providing food to the mutineers and organising across workplaces. In Germany in 1918 sailors at Kiel revolted against their generals’ orders for “one last push” in the war. They felt the bitterness and resentment against the war that was turning into action by workers across Germany. A historian of the German army wrote of how “many young recruits” were “infected with leftist anti-war propaganda”.

Armed sailors marched side by side with dockers on strike in Kiel. They set up a soldiers’ council which sparked off demonstrations. Workers and soldiers took control of cities across Germany. Their struggle forced the Kaiser to flee Germany. Thousands of workers and soldiers massed in Berlin cheered as the revolutionary

Karl Liebknecht said, “I proclaim the free socialist republic of all Germans.” In both countries the new governments could only rule by exerting influence through the workers’ and soldiers’ councils.

State shatters

SPAIN IN 1936 is another example of how the state can be torn apart in times of acute crisis. Major sections of the ruling class had backed a fascist coup by General Franco. But others were not sure whether to throw their lot in with Franco. Workers responded to the crisis by taking resolute action. They stormed the barracks to disarm the soldiers.

Their decisive response meant the most right wing section of the police, the Civil Guard, went over to the workers in Barcelona. “The state, caught between its insurgent army and the armed masses of the people, had shattered to pieces,” said one account of the time. In Hungary in 1956 a student demonstration in Budapest detonated an uprising by workers. They marched to the barracks and won over soldiers.

They set up factory councils that were soon in effective control in whole areas of the country. It took tanks from Russia to restore order. Again, in Iran in 1979, mass strikes, armed workers and mutinies toppled the brutal Shah, who had claimed a year earlier, “No one can overthrow me. I have the support of 700,000 troops.”


THE GREAT social crisis in Portugal in 1974 also created a revolution. The ruling class was losing control over its African colonies. In April 1974 a general gave the go-ahead for a coup which promised to deliver democracy and an end to the African wars.

The whole of society was in flux. Rank and file soldiers began to organise. “Troops come towards us. What will happen? They raise their fingers in a V for victory sign. The crowds cheer like I have never heard cheers before,” said one eyewitness.

For a year and a half workers, peasants and disaffected soldiers struggled to realise their demands for basic democratic freedoms, land, better housing and the cleansing of the state’s secret police and officials. The state was paralysed.


THERE IS another condition that Lenin referred to that is needed to completely smash the state. That is an organisation based inside the working class which argues and agitates for the wresting away of all the power of the state. In every army or police force there are specialist groups carefully picked to carry out the most severe repression, such as the SAS or the Parachute Regiment in Britain.

There are also thousands of officers with right wing ideas. These sections will not just fall apart. They have to be disbanded, and that means using force to fight them when necessary. This is what had happened in Russia in 1917. The Bolshevik Party inside the Petrograd soviet was key to organising the insurrection in October that brought about the workers’ government.

Tragically this did not happen in Germany in 1919. The government was able to use contingents of mercenaries and officers to crush the workers’ and soldiers’ councils and re-establish the old state. Similarly in Portugal, a single right wing battalion succeeded in breaking the hold of the left wing regiments and keeping the country safe for capitalists. When workers rise up they cannot simply take over the old state-they have to smash it.

That means disbanding the police, sacking judges, breaking the army by winning over sections of the rank and file, and taking apart the bureaucracy that has served the old order. In its place workers can establish their own organs to run society in the interests of the majority and sweep away all the rotten priorities of the old order.

No one expected this to happen in Genoa last weekend. The crisis of Italian society has not yet reached anything like the conditions spelt out by Lenin.

But such is the anarchic and inhuman character of the world system that these conditions will arise again and again in the 21st century, just as they did in the 20th century. And then breaking the state will be possible.

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