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Is the ruling class too strong to beat?

By Paul D'Amato | February 8, 2002 | Page 9

THOSE WHO rule will not give up their power peacefully. Try to protest one of their meetings--as antiglobalization activists mobilizing against the World Economic Forum did this week in New York--and our rulers pull out thousands of cops.

Imagine what they might do in a revolution--if millions of workers attempted to seize control of the factories, hospitals and schools and run them democratically. Perhaps that's why socialists are often confronted with the question, Isn't the state all-powerful?

This seems to be an unsolvable paradox. Piecemeal reforms can't change the fundamental nature of a society based on the few exploiting the many. Yet revolution will be met with superior force--and defeated.

The best we can hope for, the argument goes, are minor changes that don't threaten the power of bosses--and the military and police that back them.

But there have been many successful revolutions around the world that have toppled seemingly all-powerful regimes. The Shah of Iran in 1979 and the "Big Brother" regimes of Eastern Europe in 1989 come to mind, though there are many other examples.

The question of whether the state is all-powerful is based on a misconception of what revolutions are and the conditions that give rise to them.

Revolutions succeed not because those who are rebelling have superior arms. If that were a requirement, a revolution could never win.

Revolutions succeed--or have a chance of succeeding--because of two interrelated factors. On one hand, millions of workers--through a process of mass strikes, demonstrations and political ferment--are convinced that society can't continue in the old way. And on the other hand, the ruling class is split, on the defensive and unclear about which direction to go.

In mass upheavals, the weakest link of the ruling class is the armed forces. Repression can only work if soldiers are disciplined to carry out their orders. But in circumstances of great social upheaval, this isn't a foregone conclusion--because many soldiers are themselves workers.

A mass movement can fight for the hearts and minds of soldiers, thereby splitting the military and winning soldiers to the side of revolution. The "all-powerful" state then becomes temporarily paralyzed--and overrun by millions of ordinary people who probably never dreamed that they had any power to change society. Many a dictator has been toppled in this way--from Russia's Tsar in 1917 to the Ceausescu regime in Romania in 1989.

British Marxist Tony Cliff described the process in the 1975 Portuguese Revolution. "The families living in the shantytown of Bairro da Boavista in the outskirts of Lisbon took over a housing estate that had stood empty for three years…An army company…was deployed to force the families back to the corrugated lean-tos of the shantytown. The officer in charge …went straight to what he thought was the weakest link, an old widow who had just moved with her six sons to a two-bedroom flat with electricity. She replied: 'You better shoot me right here. All my life I have had the earth for a floor. At least I will die on a proper floor.'"

"The officer stood there for a moment. Outside, the men, women and children who had assembled to resist any eviction were speaking to the soldiers: 'This could be your shantytown! Remember that you, too, are the people! Turn the guns on the speculators and not on your brothers and sisters!' The officer understood, and, taking the company with him, left the estate."

Such scenes are common occurrences in revolutions. They sum up what revolutions are all about--in the words of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, "the direct interference of the masses in historic events…The forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny."

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