By John Ross
I have witnessed three coups and attempted coups – two in Russia and one in Britain. One was ended politically, one with tanks, the present coup attempt is still not settled. There are decisive lessons on how to deal with them which precisely apply to the present attempted coup by Johnson.
These three coups were in March 1993 in Russia – ended by political means, October 1993 in Russia – ended by tanks. August 2019 in Britain – which will be ended by political means. But each had the same key lessons.
To summarise the events in these three coups each of which I witnessed first hand.
- In March 1993 Yeltsin attempted to overthrow the Russian constitution, in order to concentrate power in his hands and continue the implementation of economic shock therapy. He was successfully defeated in this by the Russian Congress of People’s Deputies and ministers in the government. However, having defeated the coup, the Congress of People’s Deputies then made the disastrous mistake of compromising with Yeltsin to hold a referendum, in which Yeltsin used his control of the courts and electoral fraud to determine the outcome of. This gave to Yeltsin the political initiative to prepare the coup of October 1993.
- In the October 1993 coup Yeltsin unconstitutionally declared the dissolution of the Congress of People’s Deputies – the highest authority of the Russian state. This was opposed by massive street mobilisations of Moscow’s population. Yeltsin then ordered the Parliament to be surrounded by armed police which were under his control. The armed police were prevented from taking control of the Parliament by armed resistance by numerous people inside the Parliament building, some with sub-machine guns and similar weapons. The police action was simultaneously opposed by even larger mobilisations of Moscow’s population until the police blockade of the Parliament was broken after several days – the armed police had been demoralised by the steadfast opposition of the Moscow population. But then, instead of consolidating this victory, the leadership of the Parliament made the disastrous decision to launch an attempt to take control of the main television station. Pro-government armed forces stationed there, who had not been subject to popular pressure, obeyed orders to open fire on the crowd carrying out a massacre. Following that the Parliament was attacked by heavy weapons, notably tanks, which the defenders of the Parliament were not able to resist. Yeltsin therefore was successful in this coup d’etat.
- In August 2019 Johnson attempted to force through a No Deal Brexit through suspending Parliament. The outcome of this struggle remains to be determined.
Each of these coups, however, has the same key lessons which totally apply to Johnson’s attempted coup.
In a coup the issue of state power is what is ultimately decisive – not just protest
The first key lesson is that in confronting a coup it is the issue of state power which is decisive – everything else has to focus on this or it is ineffectual. Everyone who opposes the coup is on the right side and an ally, but there is confusion. As an example on this at present, for example in Britain faced with Johnson’s coup various MPs have proposed so called ‘alternative Parliaments’, MPs occupying Parliament if it is suspended etc. These are beside the point and are in reality to accept Johnson’s coup. MPs have to do something much more powerful and important than this – simply vote legislation that there will be no prorogation of Parliament, and then, in the present situation, there will be no prorogation and Johnson’s coup will be blocked for the reasons clearly outlined below.
Similarly, writers such as Owen Jones and Paul Mason have called for ‘protests’. Momentum has said it will block streets and bridges. Mason has even made a supposed arithmetic calculation on the percentage of the population that has to be involved in protests for them to stop the government: ‘What we need now is a mass peaceful movement of civil disobedience. Protest theory tells us that if around 4 percent of the population simply refuses to comply with the powers that be, we win.’
But Mason’s look at the possible steps does not even mention Parliament legally blocking its prorogation: ‘The parliamentary options are now limited. Phase one is for MPs to take control of the parliamentary agenda… Phase two – being prepared right now – is to publish legislation stopping No Deal. Phase three is preventing Johnson and his allies from filibustering or sabotaging that legislation.’ Mason declares: ‘Parliamentary options to protect democracy are limited, but we can use mass civil disobedience to create a situation politically unbearable for the Tories.’
The truth is the exact opposite. Protests will not stop Johnson’s coup, only action by the state will – which in the present situation (not all situations) means laws passed by Parliament.
Protests must demand changing the law
The largest possible popular protests are indeed very necessary. They will influence the political dynamics. But in defeating a coup protests cannot be sufficient to decide it. Bluntly, demonstrations so far in Britain are very small compared to the enormous ones in Moscow to confront Yeltsin’s coup of October 1993. But protest demonstrations will not stop a coup – only something which affects the state power will.
In Moscow there were there truly gigantic demonstrations against Yeltsin’s October 1993 coup, there were hundreds of armed people many of whom were willing to die, and a significant number of whom did die, to defend the Russian Parliament. But they were simply overwhelmed by the greater power of the state – in this case by tanks.
In Britain neither people with machine guns nor tanks will be involved in the fight to block Johnson’s coup. But the state, whether using the police, the riot police, or even the armed forces if necessary [which won’t be in the present situation] can overwhelm by force any protests which challenge its power. The strongest possible protests are necessary to put pressure on the state power, and to determine the political situation, but they cannot defeat the state power – which in the present situation will be expressed in the law.
These decisive points are not meant in any sectarian sense. To use the Chinese formula, because it is the most precise, it is necessary to carefully distinguish between contradictions among the people and contradictions between the people and the enemy. The ‘enemy’ in the present situation are all those who support Johnson’s coup, the ‘people’ are all those who oppose it. MPs proposing occupying parliament/alternative parliaments etc are unequivocally against Johnson’s coup, part of the ‘people’. It is necessary to stand with them shoulder to shoulder in fighting this coup. But because they do not understand the issue of state power, which is what is decisive in a coup, they have tactics for fighting against it which are not sufficiently effective. Therefore, it is necessary to show the conditions which can stop the coup – which in the present circumstances can only be legal action by Parliament. Protests are absolutely necessary and important, but they must aim at securing that legal change.
Why preventing proroguing Parliament is vital
Blocking Johnson’s No Deal Brexit is certainly vital but it is also absolutely crucial to prevent the proroguing of Parliament – which is entirely possible legally. Johnson cannot be trusted on anything. Under the British constitution Parliament is the supreme authority – but if Parliament is not in session the highest authority will be the government and the Prime Minister. For example, once Parliament is prorogued there is nothing legally which prevents Johnson advising the Queen to extend the prorogation beyond 31 October, the date for Brexit. No assurance by Johnson/Cummings this will not be done can be relied upon one inch – they have already shown they are prepared to disregard any of their previous statements.
Three government ministers – Johnson in his interview with the Sunday Times, Gove and Gavin Williamson – have already taken the unprecedented step of saying that the government will not necessarily obey a law passed by Parliament (which could include advising the Queen not to sign a law) – an unprecedented violation of Britain’s constitution. Any such step by the government would normally be countered by a vote of No Confidence and removing the Prime Minister with a replacement who would carry out the law including advising the Queen not to refuse to sign Acts of Parliament or prorogue Parliament. But if Parliament is not sitting, if it has been prorogued, this cannot be done. There would, therefore, be no way to overturn the advice given to the Queen.
If legislation is passed Johnson will set about ‘discovering’ ‘loopholes’ in it.
There are also numerous other steps which Johnson/Cummings could doubtless dream up.
In short to allow Parliament to be prorogued would create an ultra-dangerous situation removing control of the situation.
Therefore, while measures to prevent a No Deal Brexit must certainly be passed by the House of Commons over this coming week it is also absolutely essential to pass a law blocking the proroguing of Parliament. It is imperative that, in addition to any measures on No Deal, Parliament remains sitting – that is it is not prorogued. This can be done by Parliament passing short legislation preventing it being prorogued in the present situation.
Defeating a coup
Defeating a coup means starting off by understanding that the outcome of this will be determined by state power, and determining this means a precise analysis of the relation of forces.
The first key step was been taken by Jeremy Corbyn and the joint statement by opposition parties when the said they did not accept the prorogation of Parliament. For reasons outlined below there has to be a laser like focus on maintaining this.
On 28 August Jeremy Corbyn stated: ‘Suspending Parliament is not acceptable, its not on. What the Prime Minister is doing is a sort of smash and grab on our democracy in order to force through a No Deal Brexit… So when Parliament does meet, on his timetable very briefly next week, the first thing we’ll do is to attempt legislation to prevent him doing what he’s doing and second we’ll challenge him with a motion of confidence at some point.’
On 29 August Jeremy Corbyn repeated: ‘We’re back in Parliament on Tuesday to challenge Boris Johnson on what I think is a smash and grab raid against our democracy where he’s trying to suspend Parliament in order to prevent a serious discussion and a serious debate the prevent a No Deal Brexit.
‘What we’re going to do is try to politically stop him on Tuesday with a Parliament process in order to legislate to prevent a No Deal Brexit and also to prevent him shutting down Parliament during this utterly crucial period.’
Later on 29 August there was the joint statement by the Labour Party, SNP, Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, For Change Now, and the Green Party.
‘We condemn the undemocratic actions of Boris Johnson following his suspension of Parliament until 14 October….
‘In our view there is a majority in the House of Commons that does not support this prorogation, and we demand that the Prime Minister reverses this decision immediately or allows MPs to vote on whether there should be one.’
This statement had only one ambiguity which should be removed. It is not necessary for Johnson to ‘allow’ MPs to vote on prorogation. Parliament is supreme. It can decide, but this is just an ambiguity in the statement not a wrong position.
Reliance cannot be placed on the courts. In Russia in March 1993 one of the disastrous mistakes made by Congress of People’s Deputies was to attempt to compromise with Yeltsin by stating that a referendum supporting him had to receive support of 50% of the electorate and not just 50% of those voting. Yeltsin used his control of the courts to overrule this.
Parliament, the law and the monarchy
In Britain at present, as Chris Daw QC reminds us: ‘The first thing they teach in law school – The Queen-in-Parliament is sovereign. Not the Government, not the Prime Minister.’ That means it is the action by Parliament which is decisive because it determines the law. Protests are extremely important but will only prevail if they help influence the decisions of Parliament.
As for the Queen, naturally socialists have no illusions in the monarchy. If what was threatened was the end of capitalism she might well act illegally and outside Parliament. But Brexit, either way, will not end capitalism and in these circumstances she will act in a way to strategically preserve the monarchy. And that means not going outside the law set by Parliament because to do so would for the first time endanger the monarchy.
The decisive issue is therefore that Parliament pass legislation preventing itself being prorogued. That legislation is the key issue, not challenges in court. If Parliament has not passed legislation to stop itself being prorogued the Queen will act on the Prime Minister’s advice as she has done so far. But if Parliament passes legislation she will act in accord with that law in order to preserve the monarchy from strategic threat. And if a Prime Minister advises her not to sign an Act of Parliament that Prime Minister can be removed, and the advise reversed, by Parliament – but only if Parliament is sitting!
Johnson cannot be trusted – therefore Parliament must remain in session
Jeremy Corbyn’s statements on 28 and 29 August, and the joint statement by opposition parties on 29 August, were spot on regarding the impact of a coup. But a broader picture is that a number of people cannot rapidly adjust to standing up to power and they accept the framework of the coup while ‘protesting’ about it. This is inevitable because as Marx says the ruling ideas of society are the ideas of the ruling class. It takes a serious struggle for people to break with obeying authority. Therefore, the first reaction of many people to a coup is to accept its framework and only attempt to take measures within its framework.
This was seen in March 1993 and October 1993 in Russia when Yeltsin, with the full weight of the US behind him, and with US advisers, acted illegally, rapidly, and decisively.
In contrast was the fatal mistake made by the Russian Congress of People’s Deputies in March 1993. By the time the Congress had finished its first session the coup had been decisively defeated. The head of the so called ‘power ministries’, that is the forces of repression, refused to carry out Yeltsin’s unconstitutional action. The Congress of People’s Deputies, the supreme constitutional authority of Russia, not only did not accept Yeltsin’s unconstitutional steps but voted by 60% for the impeachment of Yeltsin – only 7% short of the necessary two thirds majority to remove him. Yeltsin coup attempt was stopped dead in its tracks.
But instead of simply consolidating Yeltsin’s defeat, standing up to Yeltsin having blocked his coup, the Congress instead set about seeking a compromise with Yeltsin – agreeing to a referendum but attempting to set its own conditions. Naturally Yeltsin, in contrast, had no intention of ‘compromise’. As soon as the Congress of People’s Deputies was not in session Yeltsin used his control of the courts to overturn the conditions set by the Congress and then used his control of the electoral system to falsify the referendum.
The present situation in Britain shows a similar dynamic. Johnson is acting in a centralised, illegal and decisive way. Talk of protests, alternative parliaments and so on will not stop such actions. Passing of a law which decides that Parliament cannot be prorogued in the present period is the decisive measure. This is vital to pass alongside legislation blocking a No Deal Brexit.
The fate of Parliament lies in the hands of the House of Commons – as this House of Lords will not support Johnson on prorogation. If the House of Commons immediately passes legislation, as soon as it sits, that Parliament cannot be prorogued at present Johnson’s will be defeated. If the House of Commons does not pass such a law Johnson’s attack will roll on.
If Parliament is prorogued it will only be due to the wrong judgement or cowardice of MPs. The fate of Parliament lies entirely in its own hands not those of Johnson. That is the lesson of three coups.
The above article was previously published on Socialist Economic Bulletin.