A company union?
James Marshall of Labour Party Marxists looks at Jeremy Corbyn’s latest proposals for the armed forces
Marking Armed Forces Day on June 29 - an annual celebration of British militarism since 2009 - Jeremy Corbyn promised members of the army, navy and air force that they would be allowed to form their own “trade union” … if he becomes prime minister.1 Inevitably this provoked a storm of agitated comments: Corbyn is a threat to army discipline, a friend of terrorists, a hard-line Marxist, etc.
But there is nothing remotely Marxist about Corbyn’s proposal. After all, his model is the ever so respectable Police Federation. Established by the 1919 Police Act, it replaced the National Union of Police and Prison Officers, which - and this is crucial - organised nationwide police strikes in August 1918 and June 1919. The government deployed infantry and tanks onto the streets. Yet a “combination” of economic concessions, repression, political manoeuvring, union blunders, police divisions and the failure of organised labour to support the police “ensured the failure of the 1919 strike”.2
Prime minister David Lloyd George saw the defeat of the 1919 strike as a decisive “turning-point in the labour movement, deflecting it from Bolshevist and direct-actionist courses to legitimate trade unionism once again”.3 The Liberal-Conservative coalition proscribed NUPPO and ensured that strikers were summarily fired and then blacklisted - a cruel act of revenge, which faced “half-hearted” opposition from the Labour Party in parliament.4
Unlike NUPPO, the Police Federation cannot affiliate to the TUC. No less vital, it represents all ranks, from ordinary constables to chief inspectors, and is legally barred from taking strike action. With good reason, the Police Federation has been described as “amounting to a sort of company union” (Owen Jones - writing when he was a leftwinger).
Corbyn’s big idea is that his Armed Forces Federation would stand up for the “interests” of rank-and-file soldiers, sailors and air force personnel and give them “a voice to defend their pay and conditions and ensure they are treated with the respect they have earned”. Shadow defence secretary Nia Griffith adds that soldiers have had a “raw deal” under the government’s “short-sighted defence cuts and failed privatisations”.5 Hence 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.
Undoubtedly an approach designed to appease. 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” (Emily Thornberry). There will be tame gestures such as the Armed Forces Federation, 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 renegades, who still somehow manage to pass themselves off as radicals and, therefore, can give ‘anti-capitalist’ credentials to this dismal narrative. Sharing a platform with John McDonnell and Len McCluskey, at one of Momentum’s World Transformed events, 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 “essential continuity, that there’s going to be an army, nuclear weapons and a police force”.6
Sad to say, neither John McDonnell nor Len McCluskey raised objections. Evidently, they too want to stand under the shade of the same pale-pink flag as this 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, of course, useless grumbling about Corbyn, McDonnell, Griffith, Thornberry, etc from the sidelines. No, especially given the ‘interesting times’ we live in, the task of any worthwhile leftwinger is to directly engage with the Labour Party’s rank and file and win the real battle of rational ideas. In short, we need to convince this much expanded mass that we not only need a socialist economic programme: we need a socialist military programme.
Despite Donald Trump’s sanctions and bellicose threats, China’s imperial Belt and Road initiative, the defensive expansionism of Russia and Emmanuel Macron’s call for a common European 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 regional conflicts, sucking in rival big powers with all manner of unpredictable consequences: Iran, Venezuela, Israel-Palestine, North Korea, Ukraine, Syria, Kurdistan, Taiwan and the South China Sea 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.
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”.7 Nor can we agree with the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s studiedly vague “Cut arms spending” formulation.8 The AWL is a social-imperialist outfit and typically adopts a ‘who are we to oppose’ attitude towards US-UK led operations (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc). Nor Left Unity’s slightly less craven call for a “drastic reduction” in military expenditure.9 After all what is “drastic”? 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”.10 Ditto the Scottish Socialist Party’s formula of reducing “defence spending” to no more than the per capita level of the Republic of Ireland.11 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 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 empower the working class, so that it becomes the ruling class.
That explains why Marxists stand by the time-honoured demand of arming the working class and disarming the capitalist class. An immediate demand that educates minds, encourages the first tentative steps, until the goal is finally brought to full fruition. However - and this needs emphasising - the demand for arming the working class and disarming the capitalist class is about ‘the now’. It is not a demand only to be raised in a revolutionary situation. If we do that, it is too late. Far too late. We would already have been defeated.
Naturally, opportunists instinctively recoil from the very notion of arming the working class. Like the Weimar social democrats, they are infected with constitutionalism - certainly the case with the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the CPB.12 But symptoms that begin with a chill and a shiver, if not treated, can end in complete collapse. 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 terrorism’ - ie, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq - not a few of these former peaceniks were to be found in 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 a slimmed-down version of the existing 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 - an idea that is not spun out of thin air. No, workers’ militias grow out of the needs of the day-to-day struggle: 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, sergeant majors and court martials can thereby be replaced by the rank and file’s readiness to disobey orders. Yes, a mutiny, or a strike. Certainly, army units, air force squadrons and naval crews declaring for our side provide us with the military wherewithal necessary to safeguard either an expected or a recently established socialist majority - in the House of Commons, European Parliament, House of Representatives, Chamber of Deputies, Lok Sabha, etc.
Programmatically the workers’ movement should therefore champion these demands:
l Rank-and-file personnel in the state’s armed bodies must be protected from bullying, sexual harassment, humiliating punishments and being used against the working class.
l There must be full trade union and democratic rights, including the right to form bodies such as soldiers’ councils.
l 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.
l 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.”13 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”.14 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.15
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.16 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 quite prepared to advocate revolutionary war on the scale of Napoleon’s grande armée. Needless to say, his Can Europe disarm? was not intended to prove the undoubted military superiority of a militia over a standing army (though it can mobilise very large numbers at incredible speed, provides deep defence and is, therefore, capable of successfully surviving a whole series of initial defeats). No, Engels wanted a citizen army, within which discipline would be self-imposed. An army where rank-and-file troops would, if necessary, turn their guns on any officer tempted to issue orders that ran counter to the vital interests of the people.
Subsequent Marxist writers took the militia idea for granted. Though marred with various reformist assumptions, Jean Jaurès (1859-1914) elaborated upon the whys and hows of a militia system in his L’armée nouvelle (1910). Work and military training had to be brought close together, full-time army cadre would be confined to instructors, etc.17 Naturally, what went for Marxist writers went for Marxist parties too: 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).18 A proposition faithfully translated by the Germans: “Education of all to bear arms. Militia in the place of the standing army” (clause 3).19 The Austrians too are 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).20 Then we have the Russians: “general arming of the people instead of maintaining a standing army” (clause c9).21 The newly formed Labour Party in Britain too: in its first general election manifesto (1900) there is this call: “Abolition of the standing army, and the establishment of a citizen force.”22
And after the word there 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 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. 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.
The are many other instructive examples.
In 1919 we find Leon Trotsky - effectively the founder of the Red Army - presenting a set of theses to the 9th Congress of the Russian Communist Party “on going over to the militia system”. Here he proposed the founding of a “Red Workers and Peasants Militia constructed on the territorial principle” and bringing the “army close in every possible way to the process of production”.23
Shortly afterwards, beginning in the early 1920s, the two main workers’ parties in Germany built their own non-state militias. The Social Democratic Party dominated the soft-left Reichsbanner, while the Communist Party formed the much more militant Rotfrontkämpferbund (at its height it boasted 130,000 members). In Austria, despite its 1923 founding statutes emphasising ceremonial paraphernalia, marches and band music, the Schutzbund served as a kind of “proletarian police force”.24 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’, POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification), 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.25 Even the “non-violent” civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, included within its ranks those committed to “armed self-defence” against the Ku Klux Klan and other such terrorism.26
Imagine that a Corbyn-led Labour Party wins a general election majority. 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?27 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.
If we have anything to do with it, the Labour Party will 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 far 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 would - set them into motion as an elemental 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, progressively transferring shares to workers and establishing a people’s investment bank. Tinkering, safe and, in fact, amongst Keynesian economists all perfectly reasonable.
No, it is the enthusiastic reception for Marxist ideas, the rejection of capitalism, the dominant position of the pro-Corbyn left amongst the mass membership 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, maybe, all this in the aftermath of a Boris Johnson failed negotiation 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 the election of 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. In Chile thousands of leftwingers were tortured, were killed, and who knows how many, including US citizens, were ‘disappeared’. The September 11 1973 army coup 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 all over the Pinochet coup.28
Already, we have Mike Pompeo promising to “push back” against Corbyn.29 Graham Brady, rightwing Tory MP, saying, “We must do everything possible to stave off the risk of a Corbyn government”;30 Tony Blair denouncing the idea of a Corbyn government as “a dangerous experiment”;31 Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6, condemning Corbyn as a “danger to this nation”, who “wouldn’t clear the security vetting”;32 the Financial Times )ominously warning that Corbyn’s leadership damages Britain’s “public life”;33 The Economist lambasting Corbyn as a member of the “loony left” and “dangerous” to Britain;34 Sir Nicholas Houghton, outgoing chief of the defence staff, publicly “worried” on BBC1’s Andrew Marr show about a Corbyn government.35 Then there is the menacing statement made to The Sunday Times by a “senior serving general”:
There would be mass resignations at all levels and you would face the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be a mutiny … Feelings are running very high within the armed forces. You would see a major break in convention with senior generals directly and publicly challenging Corbyn over vital important policy decisions, such as Trident, pulling out of Nato and any plans to emasculate and shrink the size of the armed forces. The army just wouldn’t stand for it. The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul, to prevent that. You can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security.36
The army is, of course, an agent of counterrevolution, almost by definition. Failure to understand that elementary fact represents an elementary failure to understand the ABCs of history. Legally, culturally, structurally, the British army relies on inculcating an “unthinking obedience” amongst the lower ranks.37 And it is run and directed, as we all know, by an officer caste, which is trained from birth to command the state-school grunts.
Of course, the British army no longer has vexatious conscripts to deal with. Instead recruits join voluntarily, seeking “travel and adventure” - followed by “pay and benefit, with job security”.38 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 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.39
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.40 Legally, the “perfect vehicle for such an intervention” would be an order in council.41 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.”42
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 Jeremy 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 Armed Forces Federation. No, instead, let us put our trust in a “well regulated militia” and the “right of the people to keep and bear arms”.
O Jones, ‘The “spirit of Petrograd”? The 1918 and 1919 police strikes’ What Next? No31, November 2007.↩
Lord Mayor of Liverpool Stanley Salvidge, quoted in O Jones ,‘The “spirit of Petrograd”? The 1918 and 1919 police strikes’ What Next No31, November 2007.↩
Quoted in http://cnduk.org/cnd-media/item/3550-labour-and-nato?-wrong-policy.↩
LRC Programme for a real Labour government no date or place of publication.↩
‘AWL election campaign: why we are standing and our policies’: www.politicsresources.net/area/uk/ge10/man/parties/Workers_Liberty.pdf.↩
See Weekly Worker May 21 2009.↩
K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 7, Moscow 1977, p3.↩
K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 27, London 1990, p371.↩
As far as I am aware, L’armée nouvelle remains untranslated into English. An abbreviated translation was published in 1916 and can be found on the excellent Marxist Internet Archive - see www.marxists.org/archive/jaures/1907/military-service/index.htm (though I think the 1907 dating given is mistaken).↩
I am grateful to Ben Lewis for his translation of the Hainfield programme.↩
I Dale (ed) Labour Party general election manifestos 1900-1997, London 2002, p9.↩
L Trotsky How the revolution armed Vol 2, London 1979, p190.↩
M Kitchen The coming of Austrian fascism London 1980, p116.↩
See CE Cobb This nonviolent stuff’ll get you killed New York NY 2014.↩
Jeremy Corbyn, quoted in The Mirror November 8 2015.↩
See P Kornbluh The Pinochet file: a declassified dossier on atrocity and accountability New York NY 2004.↩
The Guardian June 9 2019.↩
The Daily Telegraph May 25 2019.↩
Quoted in The Guardian May 20 2016.↩
Quoted in The Daily Telegraph June 7 2017.↩
Financial Times August 14 2015.↩
Editorial The Economist June 3 2017.↩
The Mirror November 8 2015.↩
The Sunday Times September 20 2015.↩
NF Dixon On the psychology of military incompetence London 1976, p244.↩
M (Lord) Ashcroft The armed forces and society: the military in Britain - through the eyes of service personnel, employers and the public London 2012.↩
The Guardian January 25 2016.↩
F Kitson Low intensity operations London 1991, p29.↩
P O’Connor The constitutional role of the privy council and the prerogative London 2009, p20.↩
Quoted in The Guardian January 25 2016.↩