Abolish the standing army, establish a citizen force

James Marshall of Labour Party Marxists takes issue with shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry and the repentant Trotskyite, Paul Mason

Members of army high command talk of ‘not standing for’ a Corbyn government

Addressing our Brighton conference, Emily Thornberry said that the world lives in “dark and dangerous times” and that “too many times, the problems we face come down to people abusing their power and ignoring the rules and values that should govern our world”. Hence, her call for a world order based not on trampling over diplomatic norms, starting illegal wars, let alone the seizure of foreign territories. Instead, she called for “human rights and international treaties”. “Leaders,” we were told, “should insist on working through the United Nations.” In the exact same spirit of Hugo Grotius and his peace ‘through international law’ tradition,1 Thornberry appealed for a “revolution of values”, a “genuine revolution of values”, a “radical revolution of values”.2

Unfortunately, her revolution turns out to be the same old British militarism glorified, financed and deployed by the Attlee, Wilson and Blair governments. She approvingly cited her colleague, shadow defence secretary Nia Griffith, and her solemn pledge that the next Labour government “will be a strong leader within Nato, committed to spend 2% of our national income on defence”. That includes, of course, renewing the Trident missile system.

Thornberry’s speech was primarily designed to assuage. The Labour right, big business, the City, the capitalist media, the generals, Britain’s Nato allies need not worry about the next Labour government … “Jeremy has been on a journey.” There will be pacifistic rhetoric, true, but the next Labour government comes with a binding commitment to the existing constitution, Nato and, therefore, the US-dominated world order.

There are those who somehow still manage to pass themselves off as leftwing, who give this dismal narrative a radical, anti-capitalist, spin. Sharing a platform with John McDonnell and Len McCluskey, at Momentum’s World Transformed event, Paul Mason outlined his case for a “battle of rational ideas”. Basically, what his rationality boils down to is Labour striving to prove its “economic competence” and promising that there will be an “essential continuity, that there’s going to be an army, nuclear weapons and a police force”.3

Sad to say, John McDonnell and Len McCluskey raised no objections. Evidently, they too want to stand under the shade of the same pale-pink flag as the repentant Trotskyite. In other words, a Labour government which will seek to manage capitalism better than the Tories and do nothing to take the “toys” (Paul Mason’s word) from the top brass boys.

It is pointless grumbling about Corbyn, McDonnell, Thornberry, etc, from the sidelines. No, especially under today’s auspicious circumstances, the task of the authentic left is to engage with the Labour Party rank and file - total membership now stands at over 570,000 - and win the real battle of rational ideas. In short, we need to convince this mass that we not only need a socialist economic programme: we need a socialist military programme.

War danger

Despite Donald Trump’s provocative threats, China’s imperial ambitions, the defensive expansionism of Russia and Emmanuel Macron’s call for a common European Union arms budget and common armed forces, there is no immediate prospect of an all-out World War III. With the certainty of mutually assured destruction (MAD), who would fight whom and why? Nevertheless, there is the obvious danger of a regional conflict sucking in rival big powers with all manner of unpredictable consequences: Korea, Ukraine, Syria, Kurdistan and the South China Sea immediately spring to mind. A direct clash between the US and Russia or China could quite conceivably rapidly escalate. Even a limited nuclear exchange would exact an almost unimaginable human toll.

However, what distinguishes Marxists from others on the left who oppose the danger of war is that we emphatically reject all varieties of pacifism. And, when it comes to the left, there are many pious nostrums on offer. Eg, the Labour Representation Committee touchingly suggests appointing a “UK minister for peace” and a Labour government which will “progressively withdraw the UK from the international arms trade”.4 Nor do we agree with the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s altogether vague “Cut arms spending” slogan.5 Nor Left Unity’s equally ambiguous demand for a “drastic reduction” in military expenditure.6 The same goes for the number-crunching plea of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain to “cut military spending to average European levels”.7 Ditto the Scottish Socialist Party’s formula of reducing “defence spending” to no more than the per capita level of the Republic of Ireland.8 Short-sighted, timid and, when it comes down to it, a banal cost-cutting exercise.

Our military programme does not champion a slimmed-down version of the existing armed forces in the name of securing peace. Despite the factional variations, that is actually what the LRC, AWL, Left Unity, CPB, etc, advocate. Marxists - real Marxists that is - know that wars are inevitable while society remains divided into classes. Hence we recognise that the struggle for international peace is inextricably linked with the class struggle at home - crucially the struggle to raise the working class, so that it becomes the ruling class.

That is why Marxists stand by the time-honoured demand of arming the working class and disarming the capitalist class. An immediate demand that educates minds, readies the first tentative steps and finally realises. So the demand for arming the working class and disarming the capitalist class is not one that should only be raised in a revolutionary situation. Then it would be too late. Far too late. We would already have been defeated.

Naturally, opportunists instinctively recoil from the very notion of arming the working class. That is certainly the case with the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the CPB.9 But, if untreated, what begins as a scratch carries the danger of gangrene. Confronted by the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85 and the formation of hit squads, the Marxism Today Eurocommunists and their ilk condemned “macho” violence. They offered instead the mystical, women-only pacifism of Greenham Common. Come the ‘war on terror’ - ie, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq - not a few of these former peaceniks were to be found amongst the ranks of the Bush-Blair warmongers: eg, David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen, Francis Wheen, Norman Geras, Christopher Hitchens and the so-called Euston manifesto.

Marxists are convinced that the bour­geois state machine must be broken apart, demolished, smashed up, if we are to put an end to war. So, concretely, in today’s conditions, that not only means scrapping Trident and all nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction - indiscriminate and therefore inherently inhuman. We should be arguing for the scrapping of all standing armies.

Peace will not be realised through the UN, or being a “strong leader” in Nato, or by appealing for slimmed-down armed forces. Paradoxical though it may seem, peace has to be fought for. Specifically, towards that end, the working class has to develop its own militia. Such bodies are not the invention of ivory-tower philosophers; no, they grow out of the day-to-day struggles of the working class itself: protecting picket lines, defending Muslims from fasc­ist thugs, guarding our local offices, meeting places and demonstrations, etc. And, of course, with a genuinely powerful workers’ militia, it becomes a realistic possibility to split the state’s armed forces. Fear of officers, sergeants and court martials can thereby be replaced by the rank and file’s readiness to disobey orders. Certainly, army regiments, airforce squadrons and naval crews declaring for our side provides us with the military wherewithal needed to safeguard either an expected or a recently established socialist majority in the House of Commons.

Programmatically the labour movement should therefore champion these demands:

  • Rank-and-file personnel in the state’s armed bodies must be protected from bullying, humiliating treatment and being used against the working class.
  • There must be full trade union and democratic rights, including the right to form bodies such as soldiers’ councils.
  • 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.
  • The people must have the right to bear arms and defend themselves.
  • l The dissolution of the standing army and the formation of a citizen militia under democratic control.


Strange though it may appear to the historically ill-informed, here Marxists draw direct inspiration from the second amendment to the US constitution. Ratified to popular acclaim in 1791, it states: “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.”10 Those who made the American revolution - above all 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”.11 At great sacrifice the common people had overthrown the rule of George III - some 70,000 patriots are believed to have died - and the camp of democracy was determined to do the same again, if faced with another unacceptable government.

Naturally Marx and Engels considered the second amendment part of their heritage. Clause four of the Marx-Engels Demands of the Communist Party in Germany (1848) is unequivocal:

Universal arming of the people. In future armies shall at the same time be workers’ armies, so that the armed forces will not only consume, as in the past, but produce even more than it costs to maintain them.12

The Marx-Engels team never wavered. Read Can Europe disarm? (1893). Here, in this pamphlet written by Frederick Engels, 10 years after the death of his friend and collaborator, we find a concrete application of Marxism to the dawning epoch of universal suffrage and universal conscription. Engels concluded that the key to revolution was mutiny in the armed forces. His pamphlet outlined a model bill for military reform in Germany. Engels was determined to show that the proposal to gradually transform standing armies into a “militia based on the universal principle of arming the people” could exploit the mounting fears of a pending European war and widespread resentment at the ruinously costly military budget.13

For propaganda effect, Engels proposed an international agreement to limit military service to a short period and a state system in which no country would fear aggression, because no country would be capable of aggression. Surely World War I would have been impossible if the European great powers had nothing more than lightly armed civilian militias available to them.

Not that Engels was some lily-livered pacifist. He supported universal male (!) conscription and, if necessary, was, of course, quite prepared to advocate revolutionary war. Needless to say, his Can Europe disarm? was not intended to prove the military superiority of a militia over a standing army. No, Engels wanted a citizen army, within which discipline would be self-imposed. An army where rank-and-file troops would turn their guns on any officer tempted to issue orders that were against the vital interests of the people.

Marxist parties of the late 19th and early 20th century unproblematically championed the demand for disbanding the standing army and establishing a popular militia. Eg, the 1880 programme of the French Workers’ Party, the 1891 Erfurt programme, the 1889 Hainfeld programme of the Austrian Social Democratic Party, the 1903 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 4).14 A proposition faithfully translated by the Germans: “Education of all to bear arms. Militia in the place of the standing army” (clause 3).15 The Austrians too were adamant: “The cause of the constant danger of war is the standing army, whose growing burden alienates the people from its cultural tasks. It is therefore necessary to fight for the replacement of the standing army by arming the people” (clause 6).16 Then we have the Russians: “general arming of the people instead of maintaining a standing army” (clause c9).17 The newly formed Labour Party too: in our first manifesto, in 1900, there is this defiant call: “Abolition of the standing army, and the establishment of a citizen force”.18

And after the word comes the deed.

Amongst the first decrees of the 1871 Paris Commune was the abolition of the standing army and its replacement by the national guard - “the bulk of which consisted of working men” (Marx). By actually constituting a new state, based on a repressive force that did not sit outside the general population, the Commune opened a new chapter in global politics. And Russia, of course, took what happened in Paris to new heights. Formed in April-March 1917, the Red Guards proved crucial to the success of the October revolution. Red Guards, and increasing numbers of army units, put themselves at the disposal of the Military Revolutionary Committee - a subdivision of the Bolshevik-led Petrograd soviet, formally established at Leon Trotsky’s initiative. On October 25 (November 7) 1917 the MRC issued its momentous declaration that the provisional government of Alexander Kerensky “no longer existed”. State power has passed into the hands of the soviets of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ deputies.

There are many other instructive examples.

Beginning in the early 1920s, the two main workers’ parties in Germany built their own militias. The SDP dominated the soft-left Reichsbanner, while the Communist Party formed the much more militant Rotfrontkämpferbund (at its height it boasted 130,000 members). Despite its 1923 founding statutes emphasising ceremonial paraphernalia, marches and band music, the Schutzbund in Austria served as a kind of “proletarian police force”.19 When it came to strikes, demonstrations and meetings, this workers’ militia maintained discipline and fended off Nazi gangs. Though hampered by a dithering social democratic leadership, the Schutzbund heroically resisted the February 12 1934 fascist coup. Workers formed defence corps during the 1926 General Strike in Britain. American workers did the same in 1934. There were massive stoppages in San Francisco, Toledo and Minneapolis. In Spain anarchists, ‘official communists’, the Poum, etc, likewise formed their own militias in response to Franco’s counterrevolutionary uprising.

Then, more recently, in 1966, there was the Black Panther Party. It organised “armed citizen’s patrols” to monitor and counter the brutal US police force.20 Even the “non-violent” civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, included within its ranks those committed to “armed self-defence” against Ku Klux Klan and other such terrorism.21


Speaking to a Hiroshima remembrance event in August 2012, Jeremy Corbyn spoke of his wish to emulate “the people of Costa Rica”, who “abolished the army”. Leave aside the concrete situation in Costa Rica and the synthetic outrage generated by The Sun22 and the Daily Mail.23 Demanding the disbanding of the standing army has precisely assumed crucial importance since Corbyn was elected Labour leader.

Imagine for one moment that Corbyn wins a general election majority in 2020. Supposedly because it is constitutionally inappropriate for serving officers to “intervene directly in matters that are of political dispute”, are we really expected to believe that the armed forces will sit idly by and behave in a thoroughly trustworthy manner?24 That would be parliamentary cretinism - a disease that infects reformists of every stripe and variety with the debilitating conviction that the main thing in politics is parliamentary votes.

By 2020 a Corbyn-led Labour Party will - if we have anything to do with it - be fully committed to immediately making up for the loss of income caused by the Osborne-Hammond austerity regime, immediately sweeping away all the anti-trade union laws, immediately renationalising all privatised industries and concerns, immediately ending British involvement with Nato, immediately decommissioning Trident, immediately abolishing the standing army and immediately establishing a citizen militia.

Even without such a bold programme, we can certainly imagine a crisis of expectations. Masses of Labour members and voters are already well to the left of the 2017 general election manifesto. The prospect of a Labour government - certainly the actual election of a Labour government - could quite conceivably, probably will, set them into motion as a class force. Through their own efforts they would seek to put into practice what they think a Corbyn-led government really stands for. Defy the hated anti-trade union laws and win substantial pay increases. Occupy empty properties and solve the housing crisis at a stroke. Arm themselves with rudimentary weapons to prevent police attacks.

Any such scenario would inevitably provoke a frothing reaction. It is not so much that the ruling class cannot tolerate a Corbyn-led government and its present-day programme of renationalising the rails when franchises run out, reviewing ‘private finance initiative’ contracts, introducing some form of rent controls, repealing the latest (2016) round of Tory anti-trade union legislation and establishing a people’s investment bank. Tinkering, safe and, in fact, amongst Keynesian economists perfectly reasonable. No, it is the enthusiastic reception of Marxist ideas, the rejection of capitalism by Labour members, the dominant position of the Corbyn left in the Labour Party and the distinct possibility of a yanking further shift to the left, and consequent mass self-activity, that causes ruling class fears. And, have no doubt, fearful they are.

And all this in the midst of maybe failed negotiations with the EU 27, a no-deal Brexit and, consequently, a severe economic downturn. Hence the much touted option of a circuit-breaking national government that brings together a Labour right-Conservative-Liberal Democrat grand coalition. Failing that, and a Corbyn-led government, expect other, illegal or semi-legal, methods. A politically motivated run on the pound, civil service sabotage, bomb outrages organised by the secret state, even a coup of some kind.

Say, following the advice of Paul Mason, the Corbyn-led government stupidly decides to leave MI5, MI6, the police and the standing army intact. Frankly, that would present an open door for a British version of general Augusto Pinochet. The September 11 1973 army coup in Chile overthrew the Socialist Party-Communist Party Popular Unity reformist government under president Salvador Allende. That, despite its studiedly moderate programme and repeated concessions to the right. CIA fingerprints were, of course, all over the Pinochet coup.25 Thousands of leftwingers were tortured, were killed, and who knows how many, including US citizens, disappeared.

Already, Tony Blair denounces the idea of a Corbyn government as “a dangerous experiment”.26 Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6, condemns Corbyn as a “danger to this nation”, who “wouldn’t clear the security vetting”.27 The Financial Times ominously warns that Corbyn’s leadership damages Britain’s “public life”.28The Economist lambasts Corbyn as a member of the “loony left” and “dangerous” to Britain.29 Sir Nicholas Houghton, outgoing chief of the defence staff, publicly “worried” on BBC1’s Andrew Marr show about a Corbyn government.30 There were carefully placed accompanying press rumours of unnamed members of the army high command “not standing for” a Corbyn government and being prepared to take “direct action”.31

The army is, of course, an instrument of counterrevolution, almost by definition. Failure to understand that elementary fact represents a failure to understand the lessons of history. Legally, culturally, structurally, the British army relies on inculcating an “unthinking obedience” amongst the lower ranks.32 And it is run and directed, as we all know, by an arrogant officer caste, which is trained, almost from birth, to command the state school grunts.

Of course, the British army no longer has vexatious conscripts. Instead recruits join voluntarily seeking “travel and adventure” - followed by “pay and benefit, with job security”.33 Yet, because they live on bases, frequently move and stick closely together socially, members of the armed forces are unhealthily cut off from the wider civilian population and the growth of progressive and socialist ideas. Indeed far-right views appear to be very common - eg, see Army Rumour Service comments about that “anti-British, not very educated, ageing communist, agitating class war zealot”, Jeremy Corbyn.34

Still the best known exponent of deploying the army against internal “subversives” is brigadier Frank Kitson in his Low intensity operations (1971). The left - trade unionists and strikers - they are “the enemy” even if their actions are intended to back up an elected government.35 Legally, the “perfect vehicle for such an intervention” would be an order in council.36 After consulting the unelected privy council the monarch would call a state of emergency and invite the army to restore law and order.

Remember, army personnel swear an oath that they “will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors”, and that they will “defend Her Majesty ... against all enemies”. And, as made crystal-clear by Michael Clarke, director of the United Services Institute, this is no mere feudal relic: “The armed forces don’t belong to the government: they belong to the monarch,” he insists.

And they take this very seriously. When [the Tory] Liam Fox was defence secretary a few years ago, for his first couple of weeks he referred to ‘my forces’ rather than Her Majesty’s forces - as a joke, I think. It really ruffled the military behind the scenes. I heard it from senior people in the army. They told me, “We don’t work for him. We work for the Queen.”37

In the late 1960s and early 70s there were widespread press reports of senior officers and ex-officers conspiring against the rightwing Labour government of Harold Wilson. Many were unhappy about Rhodesia, many branded him a Soviet mole. However, their pathological hatred was directed squarely against leftwing Labour MPs, such as Tony Benn, Irish republicans, communist trade union leaders, striking workers and protesting students - the background to Chris Mullin’s novel A very British coup (1982).

If Corbyn makes it into Number 10, there is every reason to believe that threats of “direct action” coming from the high command will take material form. That is why we say: put no trust in the thoroughly undemocratic standing army. No, instead, let us put our trust in a “well regulated militia” and the “right of the people to keep and bear arms” l


1. Hugo Grotius (1584-1645), Dutch jurist and philosopher, is credited with laying the foundations of international law. Relations between states should be governed not by force, he said, but actual laws and legally enforceable treaties. The problem lies, of course, with who will enforce the laws and treaties. Hence, in practical terms, big powers can enforce treaties and laws on small powers, but small powers cannot enforce treaties and laws on big powers.

2. http://press.labour.org.uk/post/165720826204/emily-thornberry-speech-to-labour-party-conference.

3. Quoted in http://cnduk.org/cnd-media/item/3550-labour-and-nato?-wrong-policy.

4. LRC Programme for a real Labour government no date.

5. ‘AWL election campaign: why we are standing and our policies’: www.politicsresources.net/area/uk/ge10/man/parties/Workers_Liberty.pdf.

6. http://leftunity.org/manifesto-2015-international.

7. www.communist-party.org.uk/about-us.html.

8. www.scottishsocialistparty.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/SSP_Manifesto_2007.pdf.

9. See Weekly Worker May 21 2009.

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

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

12. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 7, Moscow 1977, p3.

13. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 27, London 1990, p371.

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

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

16. I am grateful to Ben Lewis for his translation of the Hainfield programme.

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

18. See I Dale (ed) Labour Party general election manifestos 1900-1997 Abingdon 2007.

19. M Kitchen The coming of Austrian fascism London 1980, p116.

20. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Panther_Party.

21. See CE Cobb This nonviolent stuff’ll get you killed New York 2014.

22. www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/politics/6637495/Corbyn-Britain-should-abolish-its-Army.html.

23. www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3233244/How-wonderful-d-scrapped-Army-ranted-Jeremy-Corbyn-s-call-dismissed-madness-Tory-MP.html.

24. Jeremy Corbyn, quoted in The Mirror November 8 2015.

25. See P Kornbluh The Pinochet file: a declassified dossier on atrocity and accountability New York 2004.

26. Quoted in The Guardian May 20 2016.

27. Quoted in The Daily Telegraph June 7 2017.

28. Financial Times August 14 2015.

29. Editorial The Economist June 3 2017.

30. The Mirror November 8 2015.

31. The Sunday Times September 20 2015.

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

33. Lord Ashcroft The armed forces and society May 2012.

34. The Guardian January 25 2016.

35. F Kitson Low intensity operations London 1991, p29.

36. P O’Conner The constitutional role of the privy council and the prerogative London 2009, p20.

37. Quoted in The Guardian January 25 2016.