Jacques-Louis David, ‘Napoleon crossing the Alps’ (1801): Marxism has largely neglected the phenomenon of military rule

Discontent and messianism

Chris Gray gives his take on the various oppressive regime forms that have appeared in modern times

Let us start with parliamentary democracy, where the people supposedly rule. However, the people are, of course, divided into two principal classes, one of which exploits the other: the bourgeoisie and the working class.

Things are so arranged under the capitalist mode of production that neither of these classes is able to completely enforce its rule. This point is well brought out by Hal Draper in The revolutionary thought of Karl Marx. In the first volume of this opus it is stated:

Of all the ruling classes known to history, the membership of the capitalist class is least well adapted, and tends to be most averse, to taking direct charge of the operation of the state apparatus. The key word is direct. It is least suitable as a governing class, if we use this term in its British sense to denote not a socioeconomic ruling class, but only the social circles from which the state machine tends to derive its personnel.1

This, Hal Draper argues, is because the capitalist wants to make money, and looks to the state merely to support it in that. The pursuit of money takes up a lot of time and effort, and involves fighting off the competitive plans of rival capitalists. Such conditions produce openings for career politicians, whom the bosses see as a necessary evil.

Meanwhile, for different reasons, the proletariat is, under normal conditions of ruling class hegemony, likewise not “fit for political rule”. The working class is, by deliberate bourgeois policy, educationally stunted - as Marx puts it in his Economic and philosophical manuscripts, working for capital so adversely affects the worker that it “mortifies his body and ruins his mind”.

An inevitable consequence is the phenomenon of ‘messianism’: the craving for a charismatic leader and movement (the two usually go together), which will provide a miraculous solution. Here the work of Norman Cohn is of fundamental importance.2

We need good politicians, and there is no sure-fire way of getting them. Their absence generates a widespread, understandable belief that ‘politics is too serious a business to be left to the politicians’. And here messianism finds its point of entry. As Cohn puts it, “People feel themselves victims of forces which they are quite unable to master - and, the more concerned with religion they are, the more grievous their affliction.”3

Where the facts are not adequately grasped and marshalled in a framework worth utilising, instinct and prejudice come into play. The philosopher, John Gray, has characterised the resulting messianic or millenarian approach as follows:

Millenarian sects or movements always picture salvation as:

(a) collective, in the sense that it is to be enjoyed by the faithful as a collectivity;

(b) terrestrial, in the sense that it is to be realised on this earth, and not in some other-worldly heaven;

(c) imminent, in the sense that it is to come both soon and suddenly;

(d) total, in the sense that it is utterly to transform life on earth, so that the new dispensation will be no mere improvement on the present, but perfection itself;

(e) miraculous, in the sense that it is to be accomplished by, or with the help of, supernatural agencies.4

Such movements keep recurring, provoked by ruling class action. Examples from Europe can be found in the English Civil War (1640-60), the French Revolution (1789-1802) and in the Russian Revolution (1917-24). But the classic instance could well be the seizure and rule over the German city of Münster by Anabaptists in 1534-35.

Münster’s revolutionary Christians (‘Anabaptists’ or ‘Rebaptisers’) drew from the New Testament a call for the re-establishment of human society on the basis of absolute equality and common ownership of goods. They expelled the Catholic bishop of Münster, Franz von Waldeck, who promptly organised a siege of the rebel city. But here we have a siege, messianism proclaiming equality, and the rapid emergence anew of inequality - plus, it is safe to assume, growth of unpopularity of the ruling elite.

John Gray gives a gripping account of the events occurring in the city, which was under siege until June 1535, when the traditional authorities recovered control of it. He records, inter alia, the imposition of communal dining (involving the requisitioning of private food supplies), compulsion to serve in the city’s armed forces or work as a public artisan, the expulsion of Lutherans and Catholics, who were forced to leave behind their money, food and spare clothes, prohibition of all unauthorised meetings and a theatre of public executions (pp75-78).


The only antidote to this millenarian poison is a fully democratic regime, in which ordinary citizens have the necessary knowledge, information and opportunity to control their affairs by popular vote. But there is no prior guarantee of such an outcome. Furthermore, the messianic process can just as easily appear in a rightwing shape as in a leftwing one. Norman Cohn has a lot to say about the author of a work called The book of a hundred chapters, who is known as “the revolutionary of the Upper Rhine”. This personage presents himself as a combination of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and Jesus Christ redivivus at the head of a movement of pious layfolk, monogamous and born in wedlock.

A note of opposition to commercial capitalism and private property is struck. Not only that: promotion of common ownership is combined with “megalomania nationalism” in the form of a resurgent German empire (sounds like Adolf Hitler, doesn’t it?). This empire will subdue France, England, Spain and Italy, as well as the Islamic world.

As Lenin was fond of reminding people, there is an English saying: “Facts are stubborn things”. If the capitalist class, the bourgeoisie, cannot sort out the mess and the working class cannot either, it falls to some other social class or group to undertake the job. And we have become familiar with such a state of affairs. Tony Cliff referred to it way back in the last century under the name of the “deflected permanent revolution”: ie, a variation of Leon Trotsky’s perspective, in which the working class fails to impose its own rule, leaving an unpleasant social vacuum. Example: Indonesia, following its declaration of independence in 1945, which led eventually to the seizure of power by the army in 1965. And there are other potential protagonists - for example, the peasantry, and the bureaucracy (even in combination).

As regards the peasantry, historical experience from at least 1798 onwards leads to the conclusion that the peasants, once they move, contribute great energy to a revolution - Ireland, Russia, Mexico, Spain, China can be cited as evidence. Furthermore, as peasants vary from country to country (and even within states), there are degrees of creativity among them. Perhaps in Europe Spain holds pride of place.

The peasants drive the revolution forward, and can, under favourable conditions, establish a cooperative and sustainable mode of agriculture, but it is doubtful whether they can reshape the whole of society successfully in their own image. Although French peasants up until fairly recently were capable of moving politically in their own interest - as witness the southern movement led by José Bové around 1990 - and have not ceased to be active outside Europe (like the Zapatistas in Mexico), the fundamental role in a transition falls to an urban class. As Lenin put it, the question is, which urban class will the peasant follow? The bourgeoisie? The proletariat? Even the bureaucracy perhaps.


Ethiopia under Mengistu Haile Maryam (1937-2013) is an example of the latter. Ken Tarbuck visited the country when Mengistu was in control, having been appointed an assistant professor of economics at the University of Addis Ababa in 1978.5

The 1974 Ethiopian revolution was in significant part the work of a secretive group of army officers called the Derg, which destroyed the old feudal ruling class, and suppressed any and every opposition:

The old emergent absolutist regime [of emperor Haile Selassie] was overthrown, the feudal class that had battened upon the country for centuries was swept aside, often into the grave in a literal sense. National unity was proclaimed - although ethnically there was no nation; only a collection of nations which had been cobbled together by a conquering elite. Even democracy was preached, but never carried out. All of these things would have stamped this as a semblance of a bourgeois revolution, except what bourgeoisie there was also expropriated. So we seem to have a bourgeois revolution without the bourgeoisie.6

From this Tarbuck concludes (admirably) that “a state machine can indeed develop interests of its own, that do indeed go against the ruling class of a society” (p13). Admirable, because this conclusion agrees with the analysis of the state bureaucracy outlined by the young Karl Marx in his critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of right.

Given the complexity of contemporary human society and its forms of the division of labour, it is hardly surprising that the bureaucracy itself sees itself as a candidate for the role of universal class. Another possible candidate, of course, is the military. Surprisingly, the Marxist tradition appears not to have produced a great deal on this topic - or at least not much that is readily retrievable. Tom Bottomore’s Dictionary of Marxist thought gives it no separate treatment: the nearest approximation to that is the article on Bonapartism, but I do not think that tells us much.

Engels started to write on this, but was unable to complete (owing to the necessity of bringing out the second and third volumes of Marx’s Capital), an essay with the title “The role of force in history’, which is really an analysis of Bismarck’s policy for German unification under Prussian leadership at Austria’s expense.

Reading the classical Marxists over the years leads me to only two apposite conclusions:

  1. that the armed forces contain within themselves all the relevant national contradictions - which gives them the incentive to substitute for democracy in the life of the nation (Julius Caesar, Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte and their innumerable successors);
  2. that the outbreak of war speeds up human social evolution.

In her Junius pamphlet (1916), Rosa Luxemburg asserted: “Historically the war is ordained to give the cause of labour a mighty impetus”.7 She also quotes Friedrich Engels, to the effect that “Capitalist society faces a dilemma: either an advance towards socialism or a reversion to barbarism”. Regarding which she adds: “This world war means a reversion to barbarism.” I think that was a realistic judgment.

We need, therefore, to study in detail these “special bodies of armed men”, with particular reference to Egypt, Afghanistan, Burma, Indonesia, Venezuela, etc. In Europe that means Spain and Greece.

The Wikipedia article headed ‘Military’ has a useful paragraph as follows:

A nation’s military may function as a discrete social structure, with dedicated infrastructure such as military housing, schools, utilities, logistics, hospitals, legal services, food production, finance, and banking services. Beyond warfare, the military may be employed in additional sanctioned and non-sanctioned functions within the state, including [dealing with] internal security threats, population control, the promotion of a political agenda, emergency services and reconstruction, protecting corporate economic interests, social ceremonies and national honour guards”.8

Anti-British feeling was strong in Egypt following World War II, finding expression in the election of 1950, when the Wafd emerged as the strongest parliamentary force. On January 24 1952 Egyptian guerrillas and police attacked British troops in their base in the area of the Suez Canal. The attack was repulsed, and King Farouk seized the opportunity to dismiss his Wafdist prime minister, which did not endear him to the populace. The result was a military coup on July 22-23 1952. There was a brief period of civilian rule, but then on June 18 1953 a republic was proclaimed, and Gamal Abdel Nasser became president in 1954. He announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956 - hence the ‘Suez crisis’.

The results of Nasser’s rule were mixed. There was a land reform, a growth in university education and a reduction in social inequality, with expansion of the numbers of professional middle class people. On the other hand, Nasser insisted on launching a renewed war with Israel, announcing: “The battle will be a general one and our basic objective will be to destroy Israel”.9 Egyptian forces came off worst in the encounter. Nasser died in 1970, but the Egyptian military have continued to play a dominant role in Egypt ever since, despite fierce competition from Islamists.

Afghanistan is another country that became accustomed to military rule in the 20th century. It is a patchwork of nationalities, in which the capital, Kabul, has for long existed as a bastion of reforming zeal, surrounded by an arch-conservative countryside. In the mid-20th century the standard-bearer of reform was Muhammad Daud, prime minister from 1953 to 1963, an advocate of “guided elections”. In 2002 The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty devoted a special issue of Workers’ Liberty to Daud and his successors. Sean Matgamna noted:

Though he acted in the name of the king, Daud had effectively been dictator. In terms of achievement, he is the most important of all Afghan reformers. Daud got rid of the compulsory veil for women. It was a milestone in Afghan social history when Daud, one day in 1956, appeared in public alongside the women of his family demonstratively unveiled. He built up the conscript army - that is, the independent power of the state, raised autonomously above society, and potentially a force by way of which the towns could hope to subdue the countryside.10

Daud carried out a coup against the king in 1973 without bloodshed, declaring a republic and becoming the country’s first president. Unfortunately the people who helped him in the armed forces wished to adopt the Stalinist economic model, which suited the rulers of the USSR, but not Daud. As a result he fell victim to a coup carried out by supporters of the so-called People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which consisted of two quarrelsome factions known as Khalq (People) and Parcham (Flag).

However, while Daud had operated like a feudal chief, the PDPA conspicuously lacked any such traditional cachet. Eventually its Soviet backers recoiled and decided to send in Russian troops, which led to an upsurge of political Islamism in the country and the rise of the Taliban.

There are plenty more non-European examples of states which have been taken over by the armed forces with noxious results. Burma is one such. Aung San, a founder of the Burmese Communist Party, was appointed prime minister of what was still the British Crown Colony of Burma in September 1946, but was assassinated a year later. Military rule has continued to this day in one form or another. The original military ruler was General Ne Win, who presided until his retirement in 1988, to be succeeded by the State Law and Order Restoration Council. The activities of these gentlemen have been expertly chronicled by Thant Myint-U.

Thant Myint-U describes Ne Win as:

an army boss who set the country on a decidedly authoritarian and puritanical path, directing ruthless counter-insurgency campaigns, jailing any opposition, silencing a once-flourishing press, and banning a slew of entertainments he had once enjoyed himself, from beauty pageants to horse-racing. Ne Win also ruined Burmese education ... For decades, investment in education hovered close to zero.11

Overall, the situation was very bleak.


Indonesia provides another glaring example of the lethal effects of military rule. One of the principal leaders in the war of independence against Dutch overlordship (1945-49) was Kusno Sosrodiharjo, better known as Sukarno. He became president of the republic that emerged, then took a back seat until 1956, when he

returned to centre stage, attacking the parliamentary system of political parties … The establishment of martial law the following year, in response to regional revolts, gave Sukarno an opportunity to ally with one faction of the army, divest the party system of executive power, and reinvest it in himself, as president. Sukarno now instituted his version of strong-man rule, or … ‘guided democracy’, which banned two of the most important political parties for supporting rebellions against the government.12

Around this time there was an ambiguous relationship between Sukarno and the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). However, he showed a degree of approval of Mao’s China, being “impressed by China’s disciplined political leadership and mass displays of enthusiasm”. He “respectfully asked for Chinese guidance on key aspects of state-building, such as economic development and the appropriate relationship between politics and the army”.13

From 1957 until 1965 the army exercised more and more influence over the Indonesian Republic and the PKI ended up by trying to stage a coup in 1965. But it was badly organised, and was quelled by prompt action on the part of major-general Suharto, who took control of the situation in Jakarta, the country’s capital city:

Suharto ordered loyal troops to ... capitalise on the failed coup to purge anyone suspected of ‘communist’ sympathies.

Within a year, at least half a million were dead, through a combination of army and militia violence ... The army mobilised the PKI’s local enemies: youth organisations of anti-communist political parties or religious groups. With army consent and orchestration, hundreds of thousands of their members detained those associated with the PKI, burned their houses and murdered them.14

Venezuela offers an interesting contrast. The country is no stranger to military coups. For example, in 1899 Cipriano Castro seized power in Caracas and ruled from 1899 to 1908, when he was in turn ousted by Juan Vicente Gómez. On Gómez’s death in 1935 the dictatorship continued, being relaxed a bit from 1941 under Isaías Medina Angarita, who allowed political parties to operate. But Angarita was then overthrown in what appears to have been a popular-military coup in 1945, and a parliamentary democracy ensued. This, however, lasted only three years before another 10-year period of military rule under Pérez Jimenez. Elections were held in 1952, but the ruling junta ignored the result and retained power.

An accumulation of government debts resulted in the ejection of Jimenez and the institution of a ‘normal’ kind of two-party parliamentary system, until the 1980s, when once more there was a heavy burden of debt, plus pressure for the introduction of economic deregulation and destatification - commonly known as neoliberalism. This led to an explosion of popular discontent in the capital in 1989, known as the Caracazo.

Following on from there Hugo Chávez launched an abortive coup in 1992. This, in its turn, was followed by another abortive coup in November of the same year. Then, after his release from prison, Chávez began using parliamentary tactics in support of revolutionary change (as he saw it). This led to the creation of a popular electoral front, the Polo Patriótico, which won 56.2% of the vote in the elections in December 1998.

Once securely in office Chávez was able to embark on a number of progressive policies. He attempted to bring more areas of the country under cultivation in order to reduce reliance on food imports. He introduced a land reform which barred individuals from owning more than 5,000 hectares, and enabling the state to take over and redistribute land not being cultivated. He set up a state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela SA, which expropriated foreign producers and began talking about the desirability of moving towards socialism. However, the talk of socialism remained abstract and rhetorical.

Alan Woods has made this essential criticism:

If Chávez were a Marxist, he would appeal to the masses over the heads of the National Assembly. The establishment of action committees in every factory, oil refinery and army barracks is the only way to defend the revolution and disarm the counterrevolutionary forces.15

Despite this necessary criticism, one or two small victories can be recorded. Eg, in Caracas there is an outdoor area where goods and services may be obtained free of charge, the so-called esquina caliente (literally ‘hot corner’). Clearly this is a result of the protecting power of the Venezuelan armed forces standing against the external and internal counterrevolution. However, the Chávez initiative is something of an exception where military rule is concerned: military dictatorships tend not to lead in that direction.


On the continent of Europe, possibly the classic example of military involvement in politics is Spain, the land of the pronunciamiento, or military political declaration. The starting point here is the liberal constitution of 1812, which enshrined Catholicism as the sole legal religion in Spain. It also asserted the sovereignty of the nation, as against the crown, and affirmed separation of powers, freedom of the press, capitalist enterprise, abolition of feudalism and a parliamentary system based on universal adult male suffrage. The constitution was abrogated in 1814 by King Ferdinand VII, who restored the absolute monarchy.

A series of wars then broke out, starting in October 1833. In the course of the first one a group of sergeants organised a mutiny in 1836, forcing the monarch to declare a return to the constitution of 1812 - largely re-enacted in 1837. As many commentators have emphasised, this state of affairs was the result of the political weakness of Spanish absolutism, which connected in turn with the weakness of Spanish capitalist enterprises on the world market. Trotsky has some especially useful observations on this:

In this country of particularism and separatism, the army necessarily assumed great significance as a centralising force. It became not only a prop of the monarchy, but also a vehicle for the discontent of all sections of the ruling classes. Like the bureaucracy, the officers are recruited from those elements, extremely numerous in Spain, that demand of the state, first of all, their means of livelihood. And, as the appetites of the different groups of ‘cultured’ society greatly exceed the state, parliamentary and other positions available, the dissatisfaction of those left over nurtures the republican camp, which is just as unstable as all the other groupings in Spain …

Military coups and palace revolutions follow on each other’s heels. During the 19th century and the first third of the 20th, political regimes kept changing kaleidoscopically. Not finding sufficiently stable support in any of the propertied classes - even though they all needed it - the Spanish monarchy more than once fell into dependence upon its own army. But the atomisation of the provinces puts its stamp on the character of the military plots. The petty rivalry of the juntas was only the outward expression of the Spanish revolution’s lack of a leading class. Precisely because of this, the monarchy triumphed over each new revolution. A short time after the triumph of order, however, the chronic crisis once more broke through.16

The last great Spanish pronunciamiento was the work of four generals, including Francisco Franco, who came to power in 1936 in response to the republican and socialist (and anarchist) desires of ordinary Spaniards from 1931 onwards.

The other European country notable for political interventions by the military is Greece. In the early 20th century a cycle of military interventions began with a coup staged by army officers in 1909. The officers invited a popular radical politician, Eleutherios Venizelos to act as their advisor. This move paved the way for pro-capitalist development and a series of political reforms introduced in 1911-14.

In World War I Venizelos’s sympathies lay with the Franco-British-Russian Entente, whereas King Constantine favoured the Central Powers. Greece ended up being coerced into joining the war on the Entente side. When the king and his supporters obstructed the Entente’s plans, this led a group of pro-Venizelos officers launching a coup in 1916, and the result was an unstable ‘dual power’ situation. After the Allies in the Entente demanded that King Constantine abdicate, he stepped down. A majority of Greeks were now war-weary, and Venizelos sensed it, but the royalists seized the opportunity, and King Constantine returned to Athens in December 1920.

The pendulum then swung back yet again with another republican coup in 1922. A plebiscite was held on the question of the Greek monarchy in 1924, but republicans spoke of not relying on the ballot box, but the army, and the cabinet now contained military men as well as civilians. Plans were made for a new constitution, but before this could be brought in there was another military coup, led by republican officers under general Theodoros Pangalos, following on from which an unstable royalist-republican ministry governed in parliamentary mode until February 1928. Then there was a fourth Venizelos government until 1932. The political seesaw continued, with two abortive republican attempts at a military coup until, under a further period of restored monarchy, elections in January 1936 produced a parliament in which the numerical balance was held by 15 communist deputies. The bourgeois majority was quite happy for general Ioannis Metaxas to take over as a means of dealing with the communist menace.

Metaxas ruled until 1941, long enough to oppose Benito Mussolini’s attack on Greece in 1940. Mussolini needed German help with his invasion, and the result was rule by Nazi Germany until 1944, followed by a vicious civil war from 1946 until 1949. US support for the Greek conservative ministers continued afterwards. The regime was oppressive, amounting to a police state, with a shadow ‘para-government’. Attempts to deal with the political and economic problems inherent in this situation by George Papandreou’s government from 1964 to 1967 did not stop another rightwing paramilitary backlash and coup, the ensuing government labelled the ‘regime of the colonels’ (1967-74). They outlawed trade unions, prohibited meetings of more than five people, censored newspapers and organised the arrest of communists. Finally, faced with the collapse of their over-confident putsch in the island of Cyprus, the colonels bowed out.

There is another institutional component which I have not discussed, however: that is to say, established religion - primarily faiths derived from Abraham/Ibrahim. Suffice it to say that this component tends not to operate on its own, but to attach itself to other groupings: eg, as in Austria in the 1930s under Engelbert Dollfuss, Franco in Spain, and so on.

Quite what we can expect in the near future will be heavily dependent on what happens in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. Let us hope that we can minimise the damage.

  1. H Draper The revolutionary thought of Karl Marx New York 1977, p321 (original emphasis).↩︎

  2. N Cohn The pursuit of the millennium St Albans 1970.↩︎

  3. N Cohn Europe’s inner demons London 1993, p29).↩︎

  4. J Gray Seven types of atheism London 2019, p73.↩︎

  5. See K Tarbuck Ethiopia and socialist theory, printed together with his Bonapartism and the nature of the state (New York 1973).↩︎

  6. K Tarbuck Ethiopia and socialist theory New York 1973, p12.↩︎

  7. M-A Waters (ed) Rosa Luxemburg speaks Boston 1970, p265↩︎

  8. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military.↩︎

  9. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egypt#Arab_Republic_of_Egypt.↩︎

  10. archive.workersliberty.org/wlmags/wl102/Afghanistan.htm.↩︎

  11. Thant Myint-U The hidden history of Burma: race, capitalism and the crisis of democracy in the 21st century London 2020, p33.↩︎

  12. J Lovell Maoism: a global history London 2019, p157.↩︎

  13. Ibid p159.↩︎

  14. Ibid p174.↩︎

  15. A Woods The Venezuelan revolution: a Marxist perspective London 2005, p16.↩︎

  16. L Trotsky The Spanish revolution London 1973, pp70-72.↩︎