(Note: The following was written in January of 2012. We are republishing it now because what was true then is even more true today.)
The world today is entering a period of revolution. We see it in Northern Africa, in the continuous uprisings of workers in China, and in the mass strikes and uprisings in Greece and other EU nations. Such periods are not unique; there were revolutionary periods in the past, such as that period opened up by the American Revolution, or the period of the colonial revolutions following WW II.
However, as the ongoing revolutionary wave in Egypt and the revolution in Tunisia show, not all revolutions result in the fundamental change that their participants seek.
Read More Revolutionary situation
Categories: Marxist theory, rebellion
This is a well researched analysis. A question left unanswered in the article is whether the working class can or should create a workers government entirely through nonviolent means. Is the revolutionary process always a violent one? It is my opinion that revolution (social transformation) does not necessitate violence. In Venezuela and Bolivia we have witnessed relatively peaceful transitions to worker controlled governments. The nonviolent civil disobedience used as a tactic by the Southern Christian Leadership Council under the leadership of Martin Luther King, became a very successful means of highlighting the vicious violent attacks on African-Americans by police through the media and facilitated a broad base of support for the protestors throughout the nation. Similarly, Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent civil disobedience was a highly effective strategy used against British colonialism. Occupy Wall Street employs nonviolent direct action organizing as a strategy very effectively. Marx is quoted as saying that he thought it was possible in certain countries (including America) to make the change to a worker controlled government peacefully. There are also statements from Engels praising the use of the ballot box as a means of attaining “universal suffrage” for workers in Germany. He cites the ballot box as yet another weapon that can be used by the working class. In my view it is just that, another weapon and can be an extremely effective in acquiring power for workers. Ultimately it is because of the ballot box that workers can and must create a workers party which can run candidates and develop a working class platform of political issues. But the ballot box must never be viewed in isolation. Working people have many other nonviolent strategies at their disposal. They include strikes, occupations, protest marches, demonstrations, boycotts, press conferences, referenda, legal action, coalition building, mobilization, direct action organizing, guerrilla theater and more.
Thanks, Thomas Wells, for your thoughts.
Classical Marxism does not view non-violence as a principle. Just the opposite in fact.
Consider the unions in the US for instance. They were built through the mass upsurge of the 1930s. In case after case, the workers resorted to self-defense. In the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters’ strike, for instance, they physically prevented scabs from breaking the strike. This included hand-to-hand battles with the police. It was a similar situation in the great auto sit-down strikes of 1936.
The “non-violence” of the civil rights movement has been widely misunderstood. In the first place, there were groups like the Deacons for Defense of Justice, who were an armed self-defense group in Louisiana. According to their founder, MLK rode with them when he traveled in their part of Louisiana, and he knew they were armed. But more than that, Martin Luther King and other leaders called on the federal government to bring out the National Guard in several instances. This means relying on the credible threat of armed violence. The only difference is that this is simply accepting that it is the capitalist state that has the monopoly on the right to use violence.
In the case of Venezuela: It is mistaken to say that that state is controlled by the workers. This relates to the issue of the ballot. We accept that it is necessary to use capitalist elections as a tactic at times. However, the whole point of the article is that elections cannot get rid of the whole state apparatus that is set up by and under the control of the capitalist class, no matter who wins the election.
Marxists do not advocate violence. However, the workers’ movement has to be prepared to defend itself, and physically if need be.
Thank you for your response. The following quote is taken out of the La Libert’e Speech made to the International Working Men’s Association:
“You know that the institutions, mores, and traditions of various countries must be taken into consideration, and we do not deny that there are countries — such as America, England, and if I were more familiar with your institutions, I would perhaps also add Holland — where the workers can attain their goal by peaceful means. This being the case, we must also recognize the fact that in most countries on the Continent the lever of our revolution must be force; it is force to which we must some day appeal in order to erect the rule of labor.” Karl Marx – 1872
It may be the view of “classical Marxism” that non-violence is not a principle, but it would appear they may have forgotten to consult Marx on the matter.
A good book to read about the actual account of the “Sit-down Strikes” in the auto plants of 1936-7 is “Organize!” by Wyndham Mortimer. My grandfather was one of the strikers in that strike and he later became a U.A.W. local officer in the Flint Chevrolet Plant. This was not a job action of violence and should not be construed that way. In fact, the strategy of the “sit-down” is an excellent example non-violent civil-disobedience. It was a complete industry-wide occupation by workers that shut down the plants. It is true that police tried to counter it using violence. They fired buckshot into the plants. At its most intense, the conflict led to workers responding to the gunfire by using water hoses and hurling auto parts back at the police. This effectively prevented police from entering the plants. The strike had a crippling affect on the Auto Industry and led major victories from which all working people have benefitted to this day. Frankly this historical example is really a vindication of the point I have been making about the possibility for peaceful revolutionary change.
Yes, the sit down strikes were essentially not violent. But self defense was also essential, as Thomas himself points out. There were several instances where the police tried to physically break through the picket lines outside and they were fought off. From the inside, the sit downers threw objects, including the heavy car door hinges, at the police. Walter Reuther famously said, “we do not counsel violence, but everything hinges upon the hinges.” So it seems there is not really disagreement: The workers’ movement has rarely initiated violence. But self defense at times is necessary.