Capitalism is drenched from head to foot in the blood of the working class. This is one reason why socialists believe that if we are to rid ourselves of this murderous system then we must mobilise the full weight of our class against all our oppressors: mass revolutionary struggle is the order of the day. At the same time, we must acknowledge that the capitalist class will use always use violence to defend their pernicious system from democratic accountability. So, if we are serious about cleansing our world of a political system that looks more favourably upon fascism than socialism, workers must be able to defend themselves while struggling for this change.
To date the most important revolutionary movement that wrested power from the powerful and placed it firmly in the hands of organised workers was the Russian Revolution of October 1917. As such critical lessons can be learned from this historic event. First off, we should note that the transfer of power to the Russian masses is commonly disparaged by its ideological opponents as representing a coup d’état that was carried through by a small band of revolutionaries. This is a lie: because the October Revolution’s success was built upon the power of a genuine mass movement of millions. Secondly, the Revolution is presented by its critics as an act of violent bloodletting when it was nothing of the sort. The real violence came through the capitalist counterrevolution. Rather than let Russia’s democratic workers’ state remain intact, more than twenty foreign states unleashed a vicious civil war on the Russian people.
Violence on trial
In recent years one of the most influential books to create a false equivalence between state violence and the determined resistance of armed workers is Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall’s A Force More Powerful: A Century of Non-violent Conflict (St Martin’s Press, 2015). Written by two State Department theoreticians, this mammoth tome celebrates a hundred years of mass struggles for justice – which, as the authors admit, have taken place against a backdrop of “wars, genocide, carpet bombing, and terror”. Their book’s primary objective, however, is highly problematic, as the authors seek to convince their readers that capitalist democracy is the only remedy for oppression, and that non-violent tactics alone are the most effective method for ensuring such change.
Perhaps of most interest to socialists, the first (and longest) chapter of A Force More Powerful deals with the Russian Revolution of 1905. Lenin famously referred to this titanic year of struggle like this: “Without the ‘dress rehearsal’ of 1905, the victory of the October Revolution in 1917 would have been impossible.” Ackerman and DuVall beg to differ and summarise this mass uprising like this:
“When Lenin wrote from Geneva before the march [led by Father Gapon] on the Winter Palace [in January 1905] that the people had to be armed to secure their liberty, he would soon be disproved, as strikes and nonviolent resistance frustrated the regime at almost every turn and opened the way for constitutional change. But he and his party went right on believing it.
“The Marxists were wrong, of course. The sponsors of violence in 1905 derailed the Russian people’s first genuine assertion of democratic power in their history. Moreover, violence in 1905 sowed the seeds for violence in 1917, creating then a new regime dedicated even more systematically than the Tsar’s to violence as the basis for state power.”
But it is Ackerman and DuVall who are wrong, of course. The sponsors of the violence in 1917 were the capitalists. In the five years succeeding the revolution the armies of more than twenty foreign nations waged a bloody civil war that decimated the fledging workers’ state, liquidating millions of lives and depleting the revolutionary state of most of their leading activists. It was this ultra-violence that helped lay the groundwork for Stalin’s eventual seizure of power and the flourishing of Stalin’s anti-democratic regime. With Stalin’s betrayal of socialist ideals being encouraged by capitalist elites but bravely resisted by real revolutionaries like Leon Trotsky and thousands of others who made up the Left Opposition. Yet genuine Marxists, following in the tradition of Trotsky, have always been clear that there can be no political short-cuts on the path to socialism. The only way for the working-class to assume power is when they themselves rise-up in their millions to smash our chains of capitalist exploitation.
The authors of A Force More Powerful as forthright defenders of capitalisms global beneficence have set themselves the unenviable task of falsifying history by proving that nonviolence is the only force capable of extracting meaningful reforms from violent elites. “Tyrants were toppled, governments were overthrown, occupying armies were impeded, and political systems that withheld human rights were shattered,” all successes that were apparently obtained through nonviolent collection action alone. Furthermore, what Ackerman and DuVall refuse to mention is that most of the case studies provided in their book demonstrate how the working-class have been forced to topple violent capitalist-backed dictatorships.
Of police unions and nonviolence
In setting out their pacifying history of social change, A Force More Powerful begins with a forensic, if deeply flawed, interpretation of the 1905 revolution — a historic event which in the hands of Ackerman and DuVall places overwhelming emphasis on the role of a single act of mass nonviolence that kicked off an epic year of struggle. They surmise: “In 1905 an Orthodox priest, Georgii Gapon, persuaded 150,000 workers to walk the icy streets of Russia’s ancient capital in the century’s first public challenge to autocratic power. He ignited mass action nationwide that led to the country’s first popularly elected national parliament.” But herein lies the first example of the authors nonviolent distortions: first off, this was not the centuries first public action challenging the Tsar’s despotism, the entire country of 150 million people had been in turmoil for decades. And second, while it is true that this mass act of civil disobedience did ignite a revolutionary upsurge, the result of that year of bloody struggle was the creation of a toothless parliament with the Tsar still safely ensconced at its helm. The other major response of the Russian state to the 1905 uprising was to release a new wave of terror upon the masses, cojoined by a new wave of anti-Jewish pogroms. That is why the real victory for workers came not after this first struggle for emancipation, but after the subsequent waves of mass resistance that finally allowed workers to take power in October 1917.
Nevertheless, after getting off to an inaccurate start, the opening chapter of the book does go some way towards correcting itself. It begins by foregrounding the immense violence of the Tsar’s Christian fiefdom, noting how governors of the state “could order anyone detained without trial, and associations or clubs of the most innocent kind could be forbidden. Autocracy, in short, meant that there were no rights.” Yes, in the preceding decades ordinary people had attempted “to liberate the country from absolutism” but to no avail. Some of these underground groups in desperation therefore turned to acts of individual terror, with a focus on assassinating political opponents. And as Ackerman and DuVall observe, “a new terrorist group, the ‘Battle Organization’ of the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) Party, had become active after the turn of the century.” In their next sentence however, the authors correctly acknowledge that genuine Marxists – like those in the tradition of the leaders of the October 1917 revolution — rejected such terroristic tactics. They write: “Other radicals rejected terrorism and tried instead to organize peasants or workers for popular uprisings. Marxist ideas tempted many young people, and socialists had agitated among workers in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and elsewhere since the 1890s.”
With the Tsar inhabiting an alternative universe imbued with the tradition of plebian bloodletting, it is understandable why the head of the Russian Empire felt his authoritarian rule would remain immune from the organising efforts of the masses. But other members of the ruling-class were more cognisant of the growing threat posed by ordinary people and “feared that the state would lose ground to revolutionaries in the battle for workers’ allegiance.” “Strikes in St. Petersburg, and the involvement of Marxist activists in organizing them,” thus had a clarifying effect upon the minds of those few ruler’s conscious of this growing democratic threat. This led Sergei Zubatov, who was the head of the political police in Moscow, to set out to undermine the Marxists’ in a novel way by creating “state-sponsored mutual aid societies” which were run “under the supervision of police agents.”