Storming the ramparts of tyranny

Issue: 142

Colin Barker

Mike Gonzalez and Houman Barekat, (eds), Arms and the People: Popular Movements and the Military from the Paris Commune to the Arab Spring (Pluto Press, 2013), £19.99

In 1870 Otto von Bismarck’s conscript army, using modern means of warfare including the railway, soundly defeated the French army at Sedan and annexed Alsace-Lorraine to the German Empire. The nature of modern warfare had clearly changed. A year later the Paris Commune revealed that the nature of modern revolution had changed too. Karl Marx, celebrating the Commune even as its fighters were being deliberately massacred in May 1871, pointed to its immense democratic achievements. The following year he and Frederick Engels wrote a new Preface to the German edition of The Communist Manifesto. “One thing especially was proved by the Commune”, they wrote, that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”. The working class must develop its own forms of democratic power, sweeping aside all forms of bureaucratic organisation.

But the nature of modern armies posed new problems. Engels, more interested than Marx in military matters, worried away at this question for the next two decades. Because of the nature of modern armaments, which permitted long-distance shelling, old methods of revolutionary struggle no longer sufficed. In a letter to Paul Lafargue in 1892 Engels wrote that: “The era of barricades and street-fighting has gone for good: if the military fight, resistance becomes madness. Hence the necessity to find new revolutionary tactics.” Those new tactics must include the promotion of military mutiny.

This important new volume of essays considers the question of the relation between the military and revolution over the past 140 years, through a series of historical chapters. Donny Gluckstein evokes the key feature of the Paris Commune—the formation of the Parisian working class into an immensely democratic army. Other authors take us through the experience of Russia, Germany and Italy as they emerged out of the First World War in huge popular revolts, the Spanish Civil War, the role of the military in anti-colonial revolutions in Egypt and Iraq in the 1950s, guerrilla struggles in Latin America from 1958 to 1990, the peasant war in Vietnam and its dramatic defeat of the American military, the Portuguese Revolution of 1974-5, the military repression of Indonesia in 1965 and in Chile in 1973. Philip Marfleet offers the most recent chapter, on the counter-revolutionary role of the Egyptian army today.

Since the 1914 Curragh Mutiny the army has not been directly involved in political decision-making in Britain. It has been quite otherwise in many other states. Many owe their modern existence to the direct assumption of power by military officers, from Japan’s Meiji Restoration in 18681 to the establishment of independent states in Egypt and Iraq in the 1950s. Where the military played a central role in anti-colonial revolts, as Anne Alexander’s chapter on Egypt and Iraq shows, they were often very jealous of their new powers, working to exclude active “civilian” forces from direct involvement in state policy. Despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s considerable role in the organisation of huge popular revolts in Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser first shut them out from office and then arrested and executed many of their leading personnel, a treatment he also meted out to Egyptian communists. In Iraq, Abd al-Karim Qasim refused Communist Party demands for participation in government. In both cases, senior military men promoted capitalist development and embedded themselves in the circuits of capitalist profit.

Marfleet’s chapter explores the role of the military as rulers in Egypt. If, initially, the Nasserite regime was associated with land reform and support for the Palestinian cause, defeats by the Israelis and inner adjustments converted it into a normal if highly authoritarian state-business complex promoting neoliberal development policies and screwing the lid on popular protest. A hierarchical army—whose senior officers enriched themselves and entered into thousands of “crony” deals with private capital—worked to maintain order, to defend Egyptian capital from challenges from below, and to exclude the mass of the population from direct democratic control over their lives.

The popular revolutionary movement of 2011 threatened that entire system, though as yet with no clarity about the role of the military. Nasserism had struck deep roots in the thinking of much of the left, which remained uncritical of the role of the state and especially the army. If ever there was a mistaken slogan, it was “The army and the people are one hand”, yet at different times the Muslim Brotherhood, Nasserites and former communists have all promoted it. The whole chapter is about arms against the people, and is especially prescient given the situation at the time of writing this review, where the army is the key organiser of counter-revolution.

The terrifying potential consequences of mistaken beliefs in the “progressive” or even the “politically neutral” role of the military are uncovered in the chapters on Indonesia and Chile, by Nathaniel Mehr and Mike Gonzalez. Some half a million Indonesian communists were slaughtered in 1965 in an unprecedented orgy of violence, both directly by the military and also by Islamic villagers encouraged by the army. Mehr cites one authority on the mass killing: it was “a political choice deliberately taken by military commanders who controlled perhaps the only instrument of state policy that could be relied upon—the army itself”. What they were doing was not defending against an imagined “PKI coup”, but securing their hegemony in the face of a reformist mass movement of peasants and workers. In its sheer savagery, Mehr concludes, “The killings evoke the mass executions that followed the crushing of the Paris Commune by the French government in 1871.” Those who rejoiced at the slaughter included the US government.

Eight years later Augusto Pinochet’s military overthrew the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende, again unleashing a wave of immensely brutal repression, which included the killing of thousands of socialists, trade unionists and communists, and the torture and imprisonment of many more. Mike Gonzales documents the way that, almost to the very end, Allende’s socialists and the Chilean Communist Party leadership went out of their way to make concessions in the face of military plotting, denying loudly that there was any threat from the generals. He also explains why the Pinochet coup was so brutal, showing how, especially in its last year, the Allende regime had been confronted by a rising wave of popular revolt that deserves to be better known and understood. He concludes: “The Chilean ruling class had seen the workers, the peasants and the poor grow in confidence and organisation. They had seen their [bosses’] strikes broken by collective action. They had, briefly, glimpsed the spectre of revolutionary change… The Pinochet regime restored their class rule, but it also acted to root out the memory of the struggle for power between 1970 and 1973.”

In his introduction to the volume, Gonzalez suggests that a key question is, “Can a revolutionary movement defeat an army?” In a way, it’s a pity that there is no final summary chapter that returns to this question. For the answer seems to be, on the evidence gathered here, “Perhaps”.

In a brilliantly written contribution, Jonathan Neale shows how the Vietnamese peasantry was able to defeat the might of the American military. The US government, backing a corrupt South Vietnamese regime, sought to defeat rural insurgency by sheer terror. Their policy was to kill so many peasants that the insurgency would stop. But it didn’t. Instead, along with a growing anti-war movement that ripped at the heart of US society, it broke up the discipline of American marines and soldiers to the point where they refused to fight, turning on their officers and sergeants. The Americans killed 2 million Vietnamese, and they lost the war. Vietnam achieved “national independence” and the peasantry displaced the landlords. What they lacked the capacity to do was uproot the causes of wider social inequalities of wealth and power. Today Vietnam is but one of a whole number of subordinate capitalist states, a member of the World Trade Organisation that pursues pretty recognisable neoliberal policies. Peasant insurgency can, it seems, help to break up an imperialist army from within, but by itself it can’t begin to make a new world.

What, though, of revolutionary movements whose participants do possess—at least potentially—the organisational power to transform social relations in a definite socialist direction? Mike Haynes, in his chapter on Russia in 1917, makes a point very bluntly: “A successful revolution cannot defeat a united army. The army must come over to the people, and in such a way that it makes it an unstoppable force, not only against the old order, but also against the potential of the officer class to seize power itself.” That requirement was met in Russia, making both the February and the October revolutions such extraordinary achievements. One vital characteristic of the February Revolution was that it was the soldiers, against their officers, who came over to the revolution. Order No 1 of the Soviet recognised and consolidated this situation, spreading “dual power” into the armed forces themselves. The committees established by armed soldiers and sailors up and down Russia’s forces were decisive in opening up new perspectives for the rank and file of the military. The revolution also created its own armed force, the Red Guards—forerunners of the workers’ militia in Spain whose struggles in the first year of the Civil War, 1936-7, are retold in a fine chapter by Andy Durgan.

In his classic History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky makes the important point that “October”—especially in Petrograd—did not match people’s normal expectations of a popular uprising: there were no great street battles between workers and soldiers; indeed the October insurrection went off with remarkably little loss of life. For the regiments and the fleet had already been won, politically, to the side of the uprising even before it was initiated. Mass meetings had debated and voted to place themselves under the orders of the Soviet’s Military Revolutionary Committee.

In the Russian case, the battle for the political soul of the army was not won all at once. One part of the military supported the second revolution—indeed in the “July Days” they urged it forward faster than the Bolshevik leadership considered strategically wise—while other parts of the army remained for a time under the control of the Mensheviks and others worked to hold back and indeed arrest the left of the movement. If one thing marked the Bolsheviks, it was their (uneven, but ultimately overall) capacity to take a view of the social movement in general (to borrow a phrase from Marx), so as to know when to contain and when to advance the conversion of their general slogans (all power to the soviets) into practical agitation.

In Germany and post-war Italy similar social forces were at work. Volkhard Mosler records how the German army before the First World War sought to exclude recruitment of urban workers infected by socialistic ideas. The war itself altered that, and fast. Indeed, the more left wing and militant workers were, the more likely they now were to be conscripted. Within the army, especially after the great battles of 1916, morale was sapped away by the appalling conditions at the front but also at the rear. Class antagonisms within the military multiplied, though it was not until 1917 in the navy and 1918 in the army that actual open strikes and mutinies occurred.

The first wartime collective resistance took the form of local food riots, often involving women, old men and boys, on the market or in the open square, for they felt bolder than the men on military duty in the factories. Resistance among factory workers, in turn, was easier than in the military—for military mutiny must succeed or end in being shot. In turn, what workers did in the factories had effects inside the military, especially when strike demands involved “political” questions. By 1917 there was a powerful shop stewards movement organising strikes in the war factories, and by February 1918 this involved the first emergence of workers’ councils. The SPD and the union leaders facilitated the breaking of these strikes. By now the debate among militants was about when would be the appropriate time for an actual uprising, an estimate that required a sense of the army’s capacity to beat back the revolutionary tide. In the event, the decisive initiative came from the navy, where an escalating series of mutinies, beginning in Kiel, spread through Germany, drawing in army regiments and workers’ strikes. Paul Fröhlich, writing in the 1920s, concluded that armed insurrection can only be used in certain historical conditions. It is the work neither of the workers nor of sailors and soldiers on their own, but can only succeed via some kind of coordination of their joint action. When that was achieved in November 1918, it signalled the end of the European war and the Kaiser’s regime.

However, the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets were not yet triumphant. The new SPD-headed government of Friedrich Ebert moved quickly to assemble a new “professional” army of right wing officers and volunteers, the Freikorps, who would be used in January 1919 to crush a premature uprising by the Spartakists. In the turmoil of the next five years, as both Chris Harman (The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-1923) and Pierre Broué (The German Revolution, 1917-1923) have shown, the Communist Party never succeeded in leading the kind of revolutionary coordination that had brought Russia’s soviet revolution to success.

In Italy, Megan Trudell reveals in a fascinating chapter that the war created a “fragmentation of political impulses in different directions, in which the political allegiance and inclinations of soldiers fluctuated, and…a search for alternatives to the post-war world that failed to bear fruit.” As to why they failed to bear fruit, the condition of the parties of the left is perhaps decisive. During the war, as in Germany, there was a complex interaction between disaffected soldiers and anti-war movements at home. Strikes, like that in August 1917 in Turin, were brutally repressed. The immediate post-war years were marked by intense social struggles, not only—and famously—in the factories, but also in the form of struggles over land, often involving military veterans, who formed several political organisations ranging from far-right, through a large body in the middle, to a leftist Proletarian League that sought to organise veterans on a class basis. The regime used the army to break strikes, most notably in Turin in April 1920 when a military invasion turned the city into what Gramsci termed “an armed fortress”. Yet even then the potential for combined action between workers and soldiers existed—if there were political forces able to connect the different struggles. The largest workers’ party, the PSI, failed to support militant factory struggles, and allowed no space for the development of links between workers and peasants, including ex-soldiers. When Mussolini’s fascists regrouped after a debacle in the elections, and turned to “squadrismo”—open attacks on workers’ strikes and organisations—the PSI failed to organise resistance, which was left to the anarchist-led Arditi del Popolo, who fought heroically but without a perspective for uniting all those who could have stopped Mussolini’s forces.

All state institutions in capitalist society enjoy a degree of “autonomy” from direct control by the citizenry. Of all these institutions, the most dangerous are the military, precisely because of their control of the means of deadly force that no other force in society can match. Unless that military autonomy can be displaced and broken apart, all aspirations to the revolutionary transformation of society count for nothing but dreams. An “independent army”, and one moreover that maintains its internal discipline and hierarchy, is the greatest enemy of freedom.

As I hope this review indicates, this is an important collection, and deserves a wide readership. It leaves some questions open, as perhaps any such book must. One, for me, concerns the significance of the change in military forces in advanced capitalism today. The Russian Revolution involved armed forces of 6 million. But the combined armed services of today are—if better armed and trained—much smaller. Most of the Tsar’s army were conscripts; today’s are “volunteers”. What difference might this make today? I don’t think we know. In an extreme revolutionary situation, the role of a modern army, navy or air force with their immense firepower could undoubtedly be tactically decisive, but how they might be divided, demoralised and/or won over to a popular revolution remains a matter to be determined in practice.

1: Back in the 1980s I attempted an analysis of the significance of the Meiji Restoration. It can be found at