A well-ordered militia

The Greens are under attack because of their ‘insane’ attitude towards the army. Meanwhile, observes Jack Conrad, the left continues its cowardly silence

Speaking on BBC1’s Sunday politics1, Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party in England and Wales, triggered a storm. Not only did she say British citizens should be free to join foreign political organisations, though they are officially deemed ‘terrorists’ (she had in mind the ANC; the mainstream media preferred Islamic State and al Qa’eda). There was her pledge that a future Green government would run down the arms industry and replace the “large” standing army with a “British defence force.” And this is the issue I shall concentrate on.

Following the Sunday politics interview, reactionary opinion rushed to diagnose insanity. Ed Miliband’s Labour Party damned Bennett’s “total madness” as a throwback to the 1970s.2 The Daily Mail concurred: the Greens are committed to a “manifesto of madness”.3 A sentiment echoed by The Spectator: so “bizarre” are the Greens that they are “not fit for government”, even as “the most junior member of a coalition”.4 Will Hutton mournfully concluded that the constantly interrupting, badgering and thoroughly irritating Andrew Neil “skewered” Bennett by exposing “absurdity after absurdity”.5 As for the now safely censored Army Rumour Service, it gleefully reported that the Green leader got her “arse handed to her”.6

Bennett was, of course, merely repeating the Green Party’s long-standing peace and defence policy (as substantially updated in January 1990 and last modified in September 2014).7

The Greens are at pains to stress that they see no prospect of Britain being invaded “in the foreseeable future.”8They envisage a benignly non-exploitative, ecologically sustainable and increasingly peaceful capitalist world. Anyway, its “body of civilian and military volunteers” will be an updated version of the Territorial Army.9 In other words, a Green Party version of a popular militia. However, though there would be an immediate scrapping of Trident, a withdrawal from Nato and an emphasis on domestic defence, there could still be overseas operations. Where appropriate, a green Britain would supply “personnel and equipment” for operations approved of by the United Nations.10

No comment

Yet despite the interview with Bennett being widely publicised there has been no comment on any of it from the left. Nothing from Socialist Worker, nothing from the Morning Star, nothing from The Socialist, nothing from Left Unity. Sadly, this is true to form. Amongst the economistic left there is a pathological fear of anything that smacks of the constitutional demand for the “right to bear arms” and replacing the standing army with a “well-ordered” popular militia.

Not that the left refuses to engage with the Greens. Far from it. Bennett’s articles are regularly published in the Morning Star. The same goes for Caroline Lucas, Derek Wall, Jean Lambert and Jenny Jones. And Socialist Resistance and Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century could almost be considered amongst Bennett’s co-thinkers. Eg, she was a keynote speaker at their joint Ecosocialism conference in June 2014. While, in a lengthy article by Claire Laker-Mansfield, the Socialist Party in England and Wales “questions whether the Greens provide the answer to the lack of working class political representation”,11 there is a studied silence when it comes to Bennett and the army. Naturally, what goes for SPEW goes for its Labour Party mark II project, otherwise known as the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (and before that the horrible No2EU red-brown lash-up between SPEW, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and the Rail Maritime and Transport union).

In 2009, we questioned SPEW’s Dave Nellist, when he was standing as the lead No2EU candidate in the EU elections for the West Midlands constituency. Revealingly, the comrade refused point blank to say if he supported or opposed our demand for a popular militia.12 Robert Griffiths, CPB general secretary - standing top of No2EU’s list in Wales - was, however, rather more bold ... and forthcoming. He aggressively dismissed the demand for abolishing the standing army and a popular militia as “nothing to do with real struggle.” There is, he dumbly explained, no revolutionary situation in Britain. Hence such demands were lambasted as a CPGB “provocation”. Indeed he actually stated that the idea of a militia presented “a gift to the British state”. If we advocate anything like that, “MI5 will be around straightaway”.13 Maybe comrade Griffiths thinks the Internationale is a dangerous provocation too. This from the second stanza:

No more deluded by reaction,

On tyrants only we’ll make war!

The soldiers too will take strike action,

They’ll break ranks and fight no more!

And if those cannibals keep trying,

To sacrifice us to their pride,

They soon shall hear the bullets flying,

We’ll shoot the generals on our own side.14

Objectively then, when it comes to the standing army and the demand for a popular militia, it is clear that the Green Party stands well to the left of the cowardly, economistic left. Sad to say, Left Unity is no exception.

When he appeared on the Daily Politics Show in March 2014, Salman Shaheen, one of our four principal speakers, diffidently bent over backwards to present Left Unity as broad, conventional and safely Labourite. A striving to become the acceptable face of Left Unity was clearly going on. Yet, despite comrade Shaheen’s self-identification as a “moderate”, inevitably, Neil - yes, the same Andrew Neil - attempted to paint Left Unity as “loony”. Specifically, he cited the Communist Platform’s motion to the March 2014 national conference.

It is worth reproducing our motion in full (‘The standing army and the people’s militia’). As will be readily understood, the popular militia we envisage is not only far more radical than the Greens’ “updated” Territorial Army. It combines ending the standing army with a militant class-struggle perspective:

Left Unity is against the standing army and for the armed people. This principle will never be realised voluntarily by the capitalist state. It has to be won, in the first place by the working class developing its own militia.

Such a body grows out of the class struggle itself: defending picket lines, mass demonstrations, workplace occupations, fending off fascists, etc.

As the class struggle intensifies, conditions are created for the workers to arm themselves and win over sections of the military forces of the capitalist state. Every opportunity must be used to take even tentative steps towards this goal. As circumstances allow, the working class must equip itself with all weaponry necessary to bring about revolution.

To facilitate this we demand:

1. Rank-and-file personnel in the state’s armed bodies must be protected from bullying, humiliating treatment and being used against the working class.

2. There must be full trade union and democratic rights, including the right to form bodies such as soldiers’ councils.

3. The privileges of the officer caste must be abolished. Officers must be elected. Workers in uniform must become the allies of the masses in struggle.

4. The people have the right to bear arms and defend themselves.

5. The dissolution of the standing army and the formation of a popular militia under democratic control.

Supposedly this reminded Neil of America’s Tea Party. Or so he said. Would Shaheen be voting for this madness? No, the comrade cringingly replied. “I disagree ... I will be voting against ... the majority of Left Unity members are disaffected Labour voters.”

Neil is, in fact, an Americophile. He has worked in the US and still owns a plush New York apartment. So you would have thought he might have recognised some of the well known phrases. In part, after all, we draw inspiration from the second amendment to the US constitution - ratified to popular acclaim in 1791: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”15


The historic background forms part of our common culture. Those who made the American revolution - crucially the urban and rural masses - saw a standing army as an existential threat to democracy. Eg, in her Observations on the new constitution (1788), Mercy Otis Warren - the mother of the American revolution - branded the standing army as “the nursery of vice and the bane of liberty”.16 At great sacrifice, the common people had overthrown the tyranny of George III and were determined to do the same again if an unacceptable government arose in the US.

The demand for a “popular militia and the constitutional right to bear arms” was clearly referencing the 1689 English Bill of Rights. Having access to arms had long been regarded as a ‘natural right’ by radicals on both sides of the Atlantic.17 Certainly the Levellers and their successors considered themselves duty-bound to take up arms against tyranny. Hence the staunch opposition to James II’s simultaneous attempt to maintain a standing army and disarm the “Protestant population”.18 Buoyed by his crushing of the Monmouth rebellion (1685) - carried out under the green Leveller flag and supported by peasants and plebeians - the Stewart king pursued his counterrevolutionary programme. However, turning back the wheel of progress threatened the vital interests of the financial and merchant elite. And it was this class which took the lead in inviting William of Orange, the Dutch monarch, to launch his invasion.19

The subsequent - pro-capitalist - constitution, agreed by both houses of parliament and the newly installed dual monarchy, was spearheaded by the Bill of Rights. Included amongst its provisions are these two formulations: “That the raising or keeping a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace unless it be with consent of parliament is against law.” And directly below that we read: “That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.”20 And, of course, the historical link between the English Bill of Rights and the US second amendment has been repeatedly acknowledged, not least by the US Supreme Court (eg, United States v Cruikshank 1876).21

The Marxist parties of the late 19th and early 20th century unproblematically included the demand for disbanding the standing army and establishing a popular militia in their programmes. Eg, the 1880 programme of the French Workers’ Party, the 1891 Erfurt programme, the programme of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, etc.

In the ‘political section’ of the programme of the French Workers’ Party (Parti Ouvrier), authored jointly by Karl Marx and Jules Guesde, we find the demand for the “abolition of standing armies and the general arming of the people” (clause four).22 A proposition faithfully translated by the Germans: “Education of all to bear arms. Militia in the place of the standing army” (clause 3).23 Then there are the Russians: “general arming of the people instead of maintaining a standing army” (clause c9).24

As to resisting tyranny, in the 1920s in Germany the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party both established well-drilled militias. Striking workers formed defence corps in Britain during the 1926 General Strike. Then, more recently, there were the miners’ hit squads of 1984-85. Countless other such examples can be cited.

LU moderates

This is the “loony” tradition that comrade Shaheen rejects ... and worryingly his BBC appearance triggered a string of approving comments on Left Unity’s e-list. The general consensus is summed up by Pete McLaren, a national council member and a leading figure in the Independent Socialist Network. He offered unalloyed backing. Salman dealt with Andrew Neil’s questions “very well indeed” and, as a final ‘Well done, comrade’, McLaren added: “I don’t think your views can be described as moderate!” Rejecting a popular militia and the constitutional right to bear arms obviously constitutes common ground.

Unsurprisingly, Left Unity moderates want nothing to do with the militia demand. Presumably they agree that such a demand presents “a gift” to the British state. Certainly it is to invite accusations of lunacy. Left Unity should therefore, one presumes, ignore the Green commitment to abolishing the standing army and stick to being an old Labourite “broad church”. Hence, though being a “libertarian republican socialist”, John Tummon said he would, like comrade Shaheen, vote against the Communist Platform motion. And, of course, there is the last resort of our Trotskyite reformists in Left Unity: appealing to the existing consciousness of “ordinary people”. A militia, the constitutional right to bear arms is premature because the “overwhelming majority” of the working class is “non-revolutionary” (Mick Hall). Robert Griffiths as reflux.

However, when it comes to the Left Unity moderates, the most interesting, the most honest, the most revealing comments come from Patrick Black. He too wants to steer Left Unity clear from the “loony left” tag. Towards that end this sectarian anti-sectarian launched an indignant attack on the “small, sad and lonely political ‘sects’ existing within the party”. They are in need of a serious “reality check”, as they do not “appear to possess a shred of common sense.” Naturally, he singles out the Communist Platform for “putting forward crazy motions to disband the British army and create armed people’s militias.” Comrade Black insists that such policies would make Left Unity “a complete laughing stock”.

Inevitably our moderate wing considers itself as the “sane left”. By contrast, a people’s militia and other such ideas “aren’t serious, coherent ‘left’ politics of any kind”. They are “simply insulting, insane and infantile aberrations”. Indeed, echoing Neil Kinnock in 1985, comrade Black clearly envisages a purge of those “sects” who have “wormed their way into Left Unity”. Unless that happens, the likes of Communist Platform “are capable of seriously damaging and discrediting, sabotaging and derailing the party at every turn, severely limiting and curtailing its appeal and advance”.

When it comes to launching a witch-hunt, comrade Black is, thankfully, part of a small minority. Nevertheless, he possesses the great virtue of actually saying what others on the “moderate wing” of Left Unity think: ie, the “right to bear arms” has nothing to do with “reality” and the concerns of “ordinary people”.


A good slice of our elected officers, national council members and regional reps, etc have a background in Trotskyism, and, albeit nowadays in private, many still declare themselves to be adherents of one or another version (eg, Andrew Burgin, Terry Conway, Simon Hardy and Tom Walker). So, and not only for their benefit, it is worth quoting Leon Trotsky himself and his ‘Programme of action for France’ (1936). Here there is not a trace of flabby pacifism, not a trace of cowardly bluster, not a trace of cynical evasion.

Point 10 of the ‘Action programme’ carries this defiant title: “Disbanding of the police, political rights for soldiers”.25 Trotsky condemns the police and standing army and shows how they are used to “develop the civil war, but also to prepare the imperialist war”. He demands democratic rights for rank-and-file soldiers and the “execution of police duties by the workers’ militia”.

Further down, under point 15, we find Trotsky putting forward a militant plan for the main workers’ parties and trade union federations to form their own militias and then uniting them “in action” against the growing threat from reaction. In February 1934 French Catholics, royalists and fascists called for a massive demonstration against economic chaos, weak government and political corruption. Armed with razors, clubs and knives, their gangs tried to invade parliament. Fifteen people were killed and 1,435 injured after gendarmes drove them back.

Trotsky, however, concludes, in point 17, warning against the delusion - spread by the Socialist Party and the ‘official’ French Communist Party - that the bourgeois police could be relied upon to disarm the reactionary gangs.

His slogan rings clear and loud: “Arming of the proletariat, arming of the poor peasants! People’s anti-fascist militia!” “The exploiters,” he explains, “are but a tiny minority” and will recoil from unleashing a civil war with their non-state fighting formations “only if the workers are armed and lead the masses”.

Trotsky and his co-thinkers were subjected to exactly the same kind of dismissals that today we in the Communist Platform hear coming from the mouths of comrades Shaheen, Tummon, Black, Hall and other moderates. Trotsky brilliantly, almost effortlessly, knocked down the objections one by one in Whither France? Hence we quickly come to his “least serious and honest” opponents. The blubbers, who insisted that to “call for the organisation of a militia” is to “engage in provocation”. This is “not an argument, but an insult”, fumes Trotsky.26

Arming the working class flowed from the entire situation in France. Trotsky rhetorically asked if a workers’ militia “provokes” fascist attacks and government repression? If that is the claim, he says this is “an absolutely reactionary argument”. Liberalism has always told workers that by their class struggle they “provoke” reaction.

Today in Britain, it certainly does not take the call for a “popular militia and the constitutional right to bear arms” to “provoke” MI5 infiltration, spying and wrecking operations; police kettlings, batterings and killings; the sequestration of trade union funds, etc.

Accusations that we Marxists are engaged in a “provocation” have long been used by timid opportunists. Trotsky recalls that the Mensheviks hurled the charge at the Bolsheviks after the December 1905 uprising in Moscow.

Here Trotsky turns savage: “Such accusations reduce themselves, in the final analysis, to the profound thought that if the oppressed do not baulk, the oppressors will not be obliged to beat them.” This, says Trotsky, is the “philosophy of Tolstoy and Gandhi, but never that of Marx and Lenin”.27

Then there is that hoary old claim that “arming of the workers is only relevant in a revolutionary situation”. Trotsky pours scorn on this proposition: it means, he says, that the workers must permit themselves to be “slaughtered until the situation becomes revolutionary”. Peaceful, normal and democratic situations suddenly give way to storms, crises and unstable conditions, which “can transform itself into a revolutionary, as well as a counterrevolutionary, situation”.

Revolutionary situations do not fall from the skies. They take form, mature and find direction in no small measure because of the long and patient preparatory work done by the Communist Party, including popularising the idea of “a popular militia and the constitutional right to bear arms”.


In common parlance, what comrades Shaheen, Tummon, Black, Hall et al advocate is the so-called ‘art of the possible’. The communist method is entirely different. We begin not by asking what “new recruits”, “disaffected Labour voters”, “the overwhelming majority”, etc are supposed to think - and later bring out our principles from the closet, as mass support is slowly gained in one election contest after another.

Eg, the Communist Platform begins with trying to establish firm principles within Left Unity and only then do we seek to win the widest audience: “In our intransigent attitude lies our whole strength. It is this attitude that earns us the fear and respect of the enemy and the trust and support of the people” - so runs Rosa Luxemburg’s famous rebuttal of the revisionists in the Social Democratic Party of Germany.Our aim is to win the majority to the principles of communism through an unremitting political struggle in the face of bourgeois diagnoses of unelectability, madness and total unfitness to govern. Necessarily that means taking on and overpowering the forces of opportunism within our ranks.

An extreme exercise. Imagine for one moment that Kate Hudson, Terry Conway, Andrew Burgin, Tom Watson and Salman Shaheen head a parliamentary majority. Are the courts, MI5, the armed forces and the police going to be loyal to parliament, or powerless to act contrary to the new government’s wishes, because of the results of a general election? Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, etc rightly branded such simple-minded politics as “parliamentary cretinism”.

Our ‘moderate’ Left Unity government would doubtless be committed to ridding Britain of the bedroom tax, restore NHS spending, renationalise the rails and taking over the energy companies. However, in the name of moderation the comrades would leave in place the standing army. Frankly, an open invitation for a British version of general Augusto Pinochet to launch a bloody counterrevolution. In Chile thousands of leftwingers were butchered after the September 11 1973 army coup which overthrew the Socialist Party-Communist Party Popular Unity reformist government under president Salvador Allende.

Why trust the thoroughly authoritarian British army? An institution which relies on inculcating “unthinking obedience” amongst the ranks.28 An institution run by an officer caste, which is trained to command, from public school to Sandhurst, as if that was their birthright. And, of course, the British army swears to loyally serve the crown - believe it, more than a harmless throwback: the monarch and the monarchy function as a potent symbol, an ever-present excuse for a legal coup.

Why trust the British army, which has fought countless imperial and colonial wars, up to and including the latest horrors in Iraq and Afghanistan? A British army that has been used when necessary to intimidate, threaten and crush the ‘enemy within’?

No, instead, let us put our trust in a “well-regulated militia” and the “right of the people to keep and bear arms”.


1. The January 25 interview has become a minor YouTube hit. See www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02hpgm9.

2. http://rt.com/uk/226227-green-party-defence-force.

3. Daily Mail January 25 20.

4. The Spectator January 31 2015.

5. The Guardian February 1 2015.

6. www.arrse.co.uk/community/threads/green-party-boss-gets-arse-handed-to-her.225450/page-8.

7. http://policy.greenparty.org.uk/pd.html.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. The Socialist January 28 2015.

12. ‘Over a pint in the pub’ Weekly Worker May 21 2009.

13. ‘Less than convincing’ Weekly Worker June 3 2009.

14. www.marxists.org/history/ussr/sounds/lyrics/international.htm.

15. www.usconstitution.net/const.html#Am2.

16. http://constitution.org/cmt/mowarren/observations_new_constitution_1788.html.

17. Note that, in legal terms, the ideologues of the American revolution - Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay et al - based their defence of the right to bear arms on English law, not least article 61 of Magna Carta.

18. RJ Spitzer Gun control Westport 2009, p101.

19. See AL Morton A people’s history of England London 1974, pp280-88.

20. www.legislation.gov.uk/aep/WillandMarSess2/1/2/introduction.

21. www.constitution.org/2ll/2ndcourt/federal/11fed.htm.

22. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/05/parti-ouvrier.htm.

23. www.marxists.org/history/international/social-democracy/1891/erfurt-program.htm.

24. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1902/draft/02feb07.htm.

25. L Trotsky Writings 1934-35 New York 1974, pp26-27.

26. L Trotsky Whither France? New York 1968, p26.

27. Ibid.

28. NF Dixon On the psychology of military incompetence London 1976, p244.