Friday, November 19, 2004

Revolution and Violence

I've been threatening to write on this subject for a while. Just a warning before I begin though: please bear in mind that 1) I am concussed and 2) I can't really be arsed to write an intricate blogpost. Don't expect anything but the usual rambling then.

I've been reading about the French Revolution for a couple of days and this morning went back to a book called The Furies by Arno Mayer which details some of the violence which occured in revolutionary France and Russia. I read it before while researching the Russian revolution and didn't read the stuff on France very closely - my recent reading on France prompted me to go back and have a re-read. Mayer's book isn't just a descriptive account of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence - he also advances a theory about violence in revolutionary societies. Basically, his theory is that revolutionary crisis rapidly polarises society - the moderates on either side and in the centre are outflanked and undermined as the mass of society quickly rushes to one 'extreme' or another. It is this dynamic, Mayer argues, that leads to violence, as 'moderate' opinion and 'moderate' action are overwhelmed leaving only two irreconcilable extremes to fight it out - since there can be no peaceful compromise between them. Mayer points out that it is often the counter-revolutionary extreme which initiates the violence and that the counter-revolutionaries tend to kill greater numbers of people than the revolutionaries. Mayer claims that the revolutionary 'extreme' reacts to initial counter-revolutionary violence - having to match it in effect - and engages in its own form of terror. Both sides effectively scare the shit out of each other and a rapidly spiraling cycle of uncompromising violence emerges until one side is victorious.

I think there is a lot to Mayer's thesis. If we overlook the inherent bias in the terms 'extreme' and 'moderate' (and the conservative implications of this political categorising) Mayer is certainly right (it seems to me) that a spiral of violence is almost inevitable in a revolutionary situation. OK, we can all point to relatively bloodless revolutions such as those in Eastern Europe in the early 90's but these took place with the support of the overwhelming majority of those societies in an international context in which the revolutions were welcomed. All but the very upper levels of those societies knew they had something to gain - even the old communist bosses knew they would stand to make a lot of money out of it. A left-wing revolution is likely to encounter a lot more resistance both internally (the economically powerful aren't going to be too happy about it and neither are their friends in the military) and externally (the US isn't going to be too happy about somewhere going Red).

It seems to me that the far-left has often been too dismissive about the problem of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence. I could give you a whole load of horror stories here about suspected Whites being pushed slowly feet first into open furnaces in Russia and suspected Royalists being disembowelled and their internal organs eaten by a mob in Revolutionary France (not to mention examples of appalling White or Royalist torture and violence), but it's unnecessary to present a detailed list. Let's just agree that humans can do truly appalling things to one another - and a revolutionary crisis/civil war is likely to give this capacity for cruelty a chance to come out into the open. If we, on the left are interested in creating a better world and eliminating injustice and cruelty as far as possible, it seems to me that we cannot just ignore the likelihood that revolution will involve a great deal of human suffering. And remeber, too, that this violence isn't just dished out against those who have chosen to get involved (against figureheads, officials, soldiers, fighters etc) a lot of it is suffered by people who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. A lot of the violence is completely arbitrary. During a revolution no-one is ever safe. There's a small passage in John Reed's Ten Days That Shook the World which I found very unsettling - it's when Reed is stopped by a Bolshevik soldier and accused of being a 'spy' and is just about to be executed on the spot when someone comes along explains who he is to the soldier. Things like that must have happened all the time, except that in most of these situations the accused wouldn't have been as lucky as Reed and been saved in the nick of time - innocents, people in the wrong place at the wrong time, could be executed on the spot by over-zealous or scared people with guns. This is troubling isn't it? I don't want to be responsible for a situation in which no one is safe. I don't want to be responsible for a situation in which thousands are killed (some of them children, old people etc and many of them, people who are just in the wrong place at the wrong time).

Of course revolutionaries can respond that we already live in a unjust world in which people die needlessly all the time. Perhaps my horror at the prospect of violence unleashed is conditioned by the fact that I lead a relatively safe and privileged life in the West - not everyone has as much to lose, maybe, if the stability of the current order is undermined. Be this as it may, however, I find the prospect of widespread violence very unsettling - and I don't think that this can be explained away in terms of my 'class position' or something. Revolutionaries often try (quite rightly) to contextualise revolutionary violence and point out that it is very often a 'necessary' reaction to counter-revolutionary violence. After, giving an account of the September Massacres in Paris, Mark Steel writes that '.. to make any sense of this episode does require an understanding that here was a city in fear of the slaughter they would be subjected to if it was recaptured by royalist forces'. To be fair, Steel is clear that the murders were 'inhuman and despicable' and he condemns a certain 19th Century socialist (Bax) who said the massacres were necessary and therefore 'justified'. However, the whole contextualising of revolutionary violence Steel offers here is very familiar. In sympathetic accounts of the Bolshevik revolution we are often told that the Red Terror was a strictly defensive measure which was initiated in response to White Terror and that the Bolsheviks really didn't have much choice - it was either cling on to power or accpet defeat and face almost certain death. I accept much of this. I don't think that there can be a non-violent revolution. However, I think that revolutionaries are often too quick to 'contextualise' and don't apply the violent lessons of history to current practice. If we are motivated by a sense of justice and humanity then we have to take the question of violence seriously and accept that choosing to be a revolutionary brings with it certain moral responsibilities. You can't simply say that violence will be unfortunate but 'necessary' and that anyway, any violence there will be will be 'started by the others' and that ours would simply be 'defensive'. If we know, as we do, that revolution brings violence (no matter who starts it) then we must accept that we will bear some responsibility for any violence that ensues (since we would be the ones who brought about the situation in which violence occurs). We can't simply shrug it off.

We all know what we would be getting into. Revolution would probably bring a great deal of death - firing squads, fighting in the streets etc etc - in its wake. We have to face the question of the morality of what we are doing and the (side) effects of what we are hoping for - massive social unrest.

I want to see a socialist society. I am (sadly) convinced that there is no reformist road to socialism. I think that the massive daily death toll of capitalism makes the overthrow of this unjust system and the building of socialism absolutely necessary. In fact I think it's a moral requirement that good people should fight for socialism (sorry to sound so preachy). However, I think that the process of revolution is something which needs to be thought through more thoroughly than I think it usually is. It is right that revolutionaries should do everything they can to minimise the chances of chaotic violence and to minimise the chances of a situation coming about in which it is thought that firing squads are 'necessary'. For this reason I disagree with the orthodox revolutionary strategy of 'frontal assault' on the capitalist state. Such a strategy (the Leninist and Trotskyist one) would, it seems to me, inevitably lead to horrific violence. Of course the danger with a certain watering down of the revolutionary approach is that you disarm the movement and, in failing to prepare the labour movement for a confrontation, you ensure its defeat and, possibly, pave the way for its violent suppression and a death toll that might go far beyond the death toll that would have resulted from a straight forward revolutionary seizure of power. I accept this. However, I don't think that it's beyond the wit of socialists to devise a strategy which would seek to develop a flexible approach to the taking of power which aims at the minimisation of the chances of extreme violence, while not capitulating to reformism or disarming the movement by not preparing them for the possibility of violence.

This, I think, is where Nicos Poulantzas comes in. A lot of what Poulantzas wrote is wrong. In particular, Poulantzas seemed to fall into the reformist Eurocommunist trap of believing that parliamentary and soviet democracy were compatible and, at times, he seems to offer what amounts to an only slightly beefed up version of the Parliamentary road to socialism. However, much of what (the later) Poulantzas said, I think, is spot on. In particular he came up with a theory of the capitalist state and class power which suggested that, up to a certain point, it was possible for socialists to combine parliamentary, state action with extra-parliamentary organisation and direct democracy. He suggests that socialist action within the capitalist state could help to create and maintain the conditions in which extra-parliamentary mobilisation and council democracy could spring up and take root. This, I think, is the basis for a modern 'centrist' revolutionary position. I think that the scope for socialist activity within the capitalist state is severly limited and it is an illusion to think that there could be a smooth transition from capitalism to socialism - there will have to be some rupture or break at some point and the organs of the bougeois state cannot be used for this transition. I do think, however, that the organs of the bougeois state can be used to create the conditions in which the balance of power was as favourable to labour as possible and in which the posibility of extreme violence is minimised as far as possible. This is what I'm talking about when I mention centrism. Maybe I'll do a more detailed blog on the strategy of centrism at some future point.

Poulantzas was clear that his centrist approach brought with it the dangers of violent reaction, Pinochet style. However he had a response to those who brought up this objection which is worth quoting. Unfortunately I'll have to quote this from memory because I don't have the book (State, Power, Socialism) with me. He says (something like):

It's true this strategy might mean that we are all headed for camps or execution at the hands of our enemies. But it's better that we suffer this defeat than we embark on a course which leads to us murdering thousands of people only, at the end of the process, to end up ourselves under the blade of some Committee for Public Safety or facing the firing squad of some Dictator of the Proletariat.

I'll check that quotation alter it when I can.

Here endeth the lesson.

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