Violence in politics
The upsurge of violence in modern society probably means that “Law and Order” will be the most explosive single political issue of the 1970’s. What concerns socialists most is the political violence which has been seen of late in Paris, London, Tokyo and many large American cities. This has been carried out by large numbers of people, mostly young, who have the avowed intention of changing society and of even instituting “Socialism”. Indeed, many of these insurgents claim to adhere to the theories of Karl Marx. Not surprisingly, Marx is once again widely regarded as the apostle of violent revolution, barricades and fighting in the streets.
At a recent debate in Edinburgh the audience heard our opponent claim that Marx had never supported the use of the ballot in achieving Socialism and had always advocated using force of arms. Whether this statement was due to ignorance or “tactics” is unknown. We say Marx’s views on the revolutionary use of the ballot by the working class are not a matter for debate, they are a matter of record and were dealt with by us in the April issue of the Socialist Standard.
Why this obsession with violence, then? After all, it is only a few years since the emphasis in the protest movement was on the non-violent. The theme of the earlier Aldermaston marches was that “we shall overcome” by pacifist methods, a far cry from the bloodthirsty spectacle of recent Easters.
The key lies in the fact that as capitalism continues on its not-so-merry way its problems not only increase but intensify. For example, the Spanish Civil War pales to insignificance with its post-war parallel in Vietnam, and prior to 1939 the disarmers were aghast at the thought of submarines and mustard gas. Today, it is thermonuclear and bacteriological warfare.
Most of the current crop of “revolutionaries” came into politics through their disgust at one or another of capitalism’s evils. Many of them were originally supporters of the Labour Party and helped get it elected in the belief that this would be a step towards eliminating certain social problems. Of course, the reality has been very different. To many it has seemed that governments lack the will or are too treacherous to deal with the problems and that it doesn’t matter who the votes are cast for, the result is the same — human misery on a vast scale. Thus they come to the conclusion that the ballot is useless, a kiss on a piece of paper.
Is it as simple as that? Is it really lack of will that prevents governments solving the problems? The myth is that governments could take capitalism by the scruff of the neck if they really wanted to. Actually, it is the other way round. How can a government determine or forecast the actions of the rest of the world? And how can it deny — if it wishes to retain popular support — the wishes of the majority? For there is another myth dearly held by the protesters, that the majority is really on their side. The fact is that the majority either supports capitalism or can see no alternative way of running society except on a production for profit basis.
So, it is a lack of desire for Socialism (production for use) that keeps capitalism going. Governments have no choice but to run the system the best way they know how. The vote, then, is not necessarily useless. Rather it is like a razor which can be used to separate a man from his whiskers or his breath. Likewise, a vote can be a weapon of emancipation or self-inflicted wage slavery, depending on the man using it.
In their frustration the protesters must turn to solutions outside of majority support, and there is no lack of would-be leaders to provide such solutions from the rehashed theories of Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, etc., and their insistence that since all previous revolutions have been violent so must the next one be, too.
We deny this most unMarxian viewpoint on the grounds that the factors involved in revolutions do not remain constant. The bourgeois revolutions of 19th century Europe took place against a background where the bourgeois had no option but to take up arms. The existing legality was often undemocratic, so the only way to change things was by illegal means.
Also, these upheavals occurred when the level of weaponry was low by today’s standards. Then it was a case of rifle against rifle, horseman against horseman. In such a situation it was possible that revolutionaries fired by the “justice” of their cause and as well, or as poorly, armed as the mere hirelings of the state could take on and beat them. Nowadays, the situation is vastly different. No group outside of the state machine could possibly seize power in a modern country in the face of the sophisticated weaponry ranged against them. Much wiser to win control of the state machine first.
The most important changed factor is that previous revolutions have always been carried out in the interest of a minority who understood what was at stake. The socialist revolution will be the first one in the interest of a majority, so, along with Marx and Engels, we hold that the majority must also understand what is at stake.
In any case, those who have actually tried to seize power without first winning political control in more recent times have failed miserably. The May 1968 Paris affair was crushed without any real force having to be used. Probably the only shots fired came from the students, themselves. No tanks, aircraft or artillery were required. Indeed, this writer has a vivid memory of seeing on TV how a Paris Municipal street cleaning vehicle made short work of a barricade.
Ignoring the myth of Mussolini’s march on Rome, the most serious attempt was Hitler’s Munich putsch in 1923. The rebels were desperate, trained and armed men, many of whom had fought in world war one, and they constituted a more potent force than anything today’s barricadists are likely to provide. Through the streets of Munich they marched until confronted by the state machine in the form of some policemen armed only with rifles. A volley of shots rang out and some of the marchers fell dead or wounded. Alan Bullock, in his Hitler — A Study in Tyranny, tells of the ensuing panic and collapse of the putsch. Although Hitler dislocated his arm in the stampede to get away, his brain continued to function. There and then he realised that attempts to bypass the state machine were useless. From then on he set out to win the minds of the German electorate and to win power legally. Once this had been achieved the military had no option but to accept Nazi rule.
Of course, the widely held view among the “revolutionaries” is that it is impossible for socialists to capture the forces of the state; that in the event of a socialist majority the armed forces and the police will be used to cow that majority into submission. How valid is this idea?
Socialists claim that the idea of Socialism — a world without social classes in which the means of production will be commonly owned — is produced out of the revulsion of capitalism’s problems, its wars, crime, poverty, alienation. that the values and institutions of capitalism increasingly come into conflict with the growing desire of the working class to live in a society more in harmony with their needs. In short, socialist consciousness is a product of capitalism’s problems. Now, there is no evidence to suggest that members of the armed forces are any more backward than other workers in factories or offices. Their ideas are pretty much the same on matters of sport, sex or politics. They do not live in a vacuum.
So, how likely is the soldier to obey a command to suppress a socialist working class? Not so long ago this writer did his National Service and can, accordingly, speak from first-hand experience. Did we obey our officers because we loved them or regarded them as superior beings? Actually, a chief topic in the NAAFI any night of the week was what a useless shower officers were. Also, any officer issuing an order which we knew to be unauthorised could be safely, and often was, ignored. During the years of National Service the newspapers often carried exposures of servicemen being misused, supplied by the men themselves.
The reason why we obeyed the officers was that even we, without a socialist idea in our heads, knew that those in command are backed by the populace at large. The working class today, as before, thinks the armed forces are necessary, so, logically, it regards discipline as a must. Officers with no authority telling soldiers exposed to socialist ideas to do what they certainly won’t want to do — shoot their own families — will be more likely to have the arms turned on them!
The most urgent task, then, for those who wish to abolish capitalism and institute Socialism, is to organise with others of like mind. No need to form another organisation when the Socialist Party of Great Britain has been in existence for 66 years. There is a great need to carry the socialist case out into the ranks of the working class, particularly now as capitalism’s rottenness becomes more exposed to the public gaze. First, it is necessary to understand that case, and a start can be made by discarding the romantic nonsense of the barricades. Those who most loudly proclaim their hatred of the bourgeoisie show it in a strange way by aping it.
We do not see the ballot as a cure-all ; it is majority understanding of Socialism which counts most. How will we know when we are a majority? there may be better methods of finding this out, but, meantime we still think that the ballot is the best way of finding out what people are thinking at any particular time.