Revolutions and civil wars

Occasionally you see socialists accommodating to pacifist tendencies in the working class by implying that a revolution is probably just like a really big demo, or maybe a general strike, and then the government collapses and then the working class forms a new government. They question of force sometimes is referred to only in the fact that there might be some clashes with the police perhaps.

In the Syrian revolution some people got squeamish when it turned into a civil war, preferring the mass pro-democracy protests at the start and then becoming all shy and moderate about it when Assad sent in the security forces to start killing people.

Trotsky makes the comment during the Russian civil war after 1917 that; “The international proletariat put before itself as its problem the conquest of power. Independently of whether civil war, “generally,” belongs to the inevitable attributes of revolution, “generally,” this fact remains unquestioned – that the advance of the proletariat, at any rate in Russia, Germany, and parts of former Austro-Hungary, took the form of an intense civil war not only on internal but also on external fronts. If the waging of war is not the strong side of the proletariat, while the workers’ International is suited only for peaceful epochs, then we may as well erect a cross over the revolution and over socialism; for the waging of war is a fairly strong side of the capitalist State, which without a war will not admit the workers to supremacy.” 

The fact if you cannot point to a revolution that does not turn into some kind of civil war – the same is true of the English Revolution between 1642–1651 of course. Ultimately in any significant social struggle between the classes the question of force decides. But the question of politics is also decisive. In any struggle for political power, the insurgent forces have to be able to articulate a programme that encompasses the needs of the broadest masses and offers incentives and gains for why people should support the revolution. Likewise the forces of the status quo fight to win in the field of politics, to convince the people that the way things are should ultimately be preserved, while usually offering wild concessions that they later ignore and tear up.

Anyone who says there is a completely peaceful road to socialism is either wilfully naive about the levels of violence that the capitalist class will inflict to stay in power, or they hugely over estimate the democratic sensibilities of those who currently run society, as if they would give up everything because they lost an election?

But revolutionaries know that winning political hegemony is crucial to winning power. The more you can win over the working class and popular progressive forces then the more the revolution itself will be a relatively bloodless affair. But the greater the forces of reaction, the forces of bourgeois order… the more difficult the road ahead.

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Simon H

Writer, socialist, bit part player in the end of the world drama

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