Could we win the army to revolution?

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Mariam Green looks at how a revolution can split the army


Events in the Middle East and North Africa make the question of the role of the army in revolution more than just a matter of academic interest. If the army is not won over it remains a tool for counter-revolution, capable of drowning a revolt in blood. How the army responds to such a situation can decisively affect its outcome.

As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky put it, "The fate of every revolution at a certain point is decided by a break in the disposition of the army."

The key to seeing how it is possible to win over at least sections to a revolution is to understand the role the army plays in society and the contradictions inside it.

The army exists to protect the interests of the ruling class of a particular state. It is an instrument of repression and reaction. Carl von Clausewitz, the great German military theorist, described war as "the continuation of politics by other means".

The ruling class uses the army as a tool for both imperialist expansion abroad and, when necessary, domestic repression. But it is also divided by class. The officers are drawn mainly from the ruling class, while the rank and file will be mostly from the working class and, in poorer countries, the peasantry.

The officers attempt to suppress these class divisions by drilling soldiers with the belief that they are protecting the "national interest" against foreign threats. The key to winning over part of the army to a revolution is to overcome this and split it along class lines.

Here there is a distinction to be made between soldiers and working class people who decide to join the police. The police are used by the state to oppress the working class on a day to day basis, whether it's by breaking picket lines, harassing working class youth on the streets, attacking demonstrations or protecting the rich against crime. As Karl Marx put it, "Being determines consciousness", and the police, whatever their social origin, come to see working class people as the enemy.

As a result, winning over even some sections of the police to a revolution will often be far more difficult than winning the sympathy of ordinary soldiers. This is because soldiers are by and large not used in such day to day repression.

When a crisis produces cracks inside the ruling class and powerful mass struggles from below, the ruling class may consider sending in troops to quell a revolt that the police can no longer contain. But suddenly being ordered to turn their weapons on the people they have constantly been told they defend, and who may very well be their own families, can produce deep disquiet among soldiers.

In the Russian Revolution in 1917 the brutal class divisions inside the tsar's army, the savage experience of the First World War and the huge strike movements inside Russia meant the key Petrograd garrison mutinied within days of the outbreak of revolution in February. Soldiers began to elect their officers and demanded that the war must end.

In Trotsky's masterpiece, The History of the Russian Revolution, he makes another crucial point about the conditions under which such mutinies can occur.

Capitalist armies are not democracies, even in the limited form we have under parliamentary democracy. They are hierarchical institutions which allow no dissent or debate. Discipline is enforced through bullying and sanctions. That is why no trade unions are tolerated inside the army, even when the ruling class tolerates them in ordinary workplaces. In war or revolution when the vital interests of the ruling class are at stake, revolt inside the army will be met with lethal repression. The stakes are very high. It can literally be a life or death question.

As a result, the soldiers must be convinced that the revolution is prepared to go all the way. As Trotsky wrote, "The more the soldiers are convinced that this is not a demonstration after which they will have to go back to the barracks, that this is a struggle to the death...the more willing they are to turn aside their bayonets, or go over [to the revolution]."

The bigger the mass strikes, the greater the mobilisations, and the more frequently class demands are raised that echo the concerns of ordinary soldiers, the greater the prospect that when soldiers are confronted by protesters on the streets and ordered to fire they will instead go over to the revolution.