Sir Patrick Sanders’ citizen army
There is much talk in establishment circles about the British army being too small and the need to gear up for war against Russia. Under these circumstances the left needs clear programmatic answers, says Jack Conrad
Perhaps it was clever news management. In the week in which the International Court of Justice in The Hague issued its inconvenient judgement about potential Israeli genocide in Gaza, the British media was dominated by lurid stories about Britain going to war with Russia, with China, with Iran and even with North Korea.1 Upping the ante came with the non-news that US nuclear weapons are going to be based on British soil once again - that “amid a growing threat from Russia”.2 Note, upgrading RAF Lakenheath to house BH-12 guided nuclear bombs quietly began in 2022.3
The top brass piled in right on cue. General Sir Patrick Sanders, chief of staff, in a speech delivered to a conference on armoured warfare held in south-west London, made his call for a much expanded army. Instead of the current 75,000 regulars, he wants a force of 120,000, with back-up provided by the creation of a citizen army of up to 500,000. Though general Sanders ruled out conscription, he talked about “national mobilisation” and putting the country “on a war footing” being “not merely desirable, but essential”. General Sanders added that Britain must be prepared for the consequences of all-out war.
Basically, that war has already begun, he argued. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was
not merely about the black soil of the Donbas, nor the re-establishment of a Russian empire. It’s about defeating our system and way of life politically, psychologically and symbolically. How we respond as the pre-war generation will reverberate through history. Ukrainian bravery is buying time, for now.4
Lieutenant general Sir Roly Walker and Admiral Rob Bauer provided support for the essential thesis that main battle tanks and piloted fixed-wing aircraft are now hugely expensive white elephants. They are easily taken out with cheap mines and shoulder-launched missiles - a conclusion drawn from Ukraine. It is artillery, drones and missiles that win territory nowadays, but it is boots-on-the-ground infantry which keeps it. Hence the latest military catchphrase: “Regular armies start wars; citizen armies win them.”5
Defence minister Grant Shapps had already weighed in with his January 15 Lancaster House speech. He too highlighted the importance of giving Ukraine “unwavering” support and declared that the halcyon days of the peace dividend are over. Instead, he announced that we have moved from a “post-war to pre-war world”. Shapps boasted of the government spending more than £50 billion on defence for the first time and being committed to raise the percentage of gross domestic product devoted to the military from 2% to 2.5%.6
While Max Blain, the prime minister’s spokesperson, denies that there are any plans to reintroduce conscription and warned against “engaging in hypothetical wars”, there are plenty of media editors determined to add fuel to the fire.7 “World War III is fast approaching, and too few are willing to admit why,” comments Sherelle Jacobs in The Daily Telegraph (the “failing autocracies” are to blame)8; The Sun asks “Could World War III happen?9; The Mirror provides the “five chilling signs UK and US are heading for all-out conflict amid global unrest”10; as for the Daily Mail, it touchingly advises its readers of the safest countries to be in “if World War III starts”.11
What about the left? How has it responded to the war fever and general Sanders’ call for a citizens’ army? Largely there has been an eerie silence. Three exceptions.
Laura Tiernan, on David North’s World Socialist Web Site, writes about Sanders issuing a “call for conscription” (wrong) and Labour and the Tories functioning as a “single party of war” (right).12 Apart from that though, nothing of any political substance.
The Stop the War Coalition, as might be expected, sticks to waving its social-pacifist olive branch. “The idea of dragooning ordinary people into these wars is utterly reprehensible and underlines the dystopian nature of the increasingly aggressive foreign policy being pursued by this government,” said vice-chair Chris Nineham.13 The alternative being to persuade governments, including a possible Labour government, to be kind and peaceable through a never-ending cycle of rallies and demonstrations. Capitalism as a system is let entirely off the hook.
Then there is Ben Chacko, editor of the ‘official communist’ Morning Star. He dismisses the Sanders plan for a citizens’ army as being a combination of ‘Dr Strangelove’ and a “laughable” ‘Dad’s Army’. Supposedly, “if Britain finds itself at war with Russia, there is a serious danger that this country would be knocked out of the conflict and, indeed, existence, in a morning”. Well, that could conceivably be the case in the event of total war and an all-out nuclear exchange, but that would mean mutually assured destruction. Given the reasonable assumption of US involvement, all belligerents would find themselves wrecked, burnt and suffering tens of millions of casualties. So much for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.
But what Ukraine shows is that nuclear powers do not automatically resort to nuclear weapons. Instead, there can be, and is, conventional warfare and that is clearly what general Sanders and other members of the top brass are envisaging in eastern Europe in five or ten years time. Comrade Chacko also, stupidly, writes about Sanders wanting to “march on Moscow”. He wants no such thing, because he at least is not so stupid. What about the ‘Dad’s Army’ stuff? This 1968-77 BBC comedy series poked good-humoured fun at the Home Guard raised during World War II. But Chacko dismisses the very idea of a citizens’ army made up of “bank managers, butchers and black market spivs” as a “farce”.14
In actual fact, what he dismisses as a “farce” is not only general Sanders and his citizen army, but the Marxist programmatic demand for the abolition of the standing army and its replacement by a popular militia: in other words, the armed people, as upheld by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the Communist manifesto and the parties of the First, Second and Third Internationals … and today championed by the CPGB. Point 3.12 of our Draft programme is unequivocal: “The dissolution of the standing army and the formation of a popular militia under democratic control.”15
Put another way, we favour general Sanders’ citizen army plan - minus his commitment to the standing army and with the vital addition of democratic control. Naturally, our citizens’ army would include “bank managers, butchers and black market spivs”. However, it would also include every able-bodied adult man and woman of the appropriate age (in Switzerland military service is obligatory from the age of 19 years and after that there is the reserve till 34 or in some cases 50). Comrade Chacko’s claim that such an army “would be a farce” exposes his profound ignorance not only about military matters, but crucially, politics.
When it comes to opposing standing armies and demanding a militia, we communists stand as part of a long tradition. The Florentine bourgeois republic of the 15th and 16th centuries deserves particular mention. Having overthrown the Medici dynasty and experiencing the failure, incompetence and betrayal of the professional (mercenary) army, the republic adopted a system of district militias. In the humanist mind the militias of ancient Rome served as the model - an ideal spread throughout renaissance Europe via the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli (The prince chapters 12, 13 and 14, Discourses on Livy and The art of war). Machiavelli, of course, himself helped create the Florentine militia. Between 1498 and 1512 he served as a senior official in the republic. Incidentally, both Marx and Engels held Machiavelli in the highest esteem.16
English radicals such as James Harrington (Commonwealth of Oceana 1656) and John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon (Cato’s letters 1720-23) took up Machiavelli’s militia ideal. From England it made the journey over the Atlantic to America, where the militias famously sparked the revolutionary war by taking on the Redcoats at Lexington and Concord.
Even after victory and the Treaty of Paris, the militia was seen by the camp of plebeian and middling democracy as their best defence against another unacceptable regime. There were, after all, those - eg, Lewis Nicola - who wanted George Washington crowned king. To guard against such an outcome, guarantees were demanded against the “establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty” (Elbridge Gerry, 1789).17 Hence the second amendment: “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” (the echoes of the 1689 English Bill of Rights and, before that, the Magna Carta are unmistakable).
Marx and Engels considered themselves the inheritors of Machiavelli, English radicalism and the second amendment. Clause four of the Marx-Engels Demands of the Communist Party in Germany (1848) is quite explicit:
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.18
The Marx-Engels team never wavered. Read Can Europe disarm? (1893). Written by Frederick Engels 10 years after the death of his friend and collaborator, here 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.19
For propaganda purposes, 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 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 model of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Needless to say, his Can Europe disarm? was not only intended to prove the undoubted military superiority of a militia over a standing army, at least when it comes to defensive wars (it can fully mobilise very large numbers at speed and is capable of successfully surviving a whole series of initial setbacks). No, Engels wanted a citizen force, 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 Marxists took the militia for granted: August Bebel, Leo Jogiches, Karl Kautsky, Clara Zetkin, Vladimir Lenin, Eugene Debs … even Eduard Bernstein.
Take Jean Jaurès and his L’armée nouvelle (1910). True, his book is marred by various reformist assumptions, a muddle over defensive and offensive wars, and is tainted by French nationalism: eg, he wanted men of military age in departments bordering Germany to keep their arms at home. Nonetheless, L’armée nouvelle provides solid arguments in favour of the militia system and even outlines a detailed implementation plan (in the form of a draft parliamentary bill). Interestingly, Charles de Gaulle, a champion of mechanised warfare and the professional army par excellence, expressed his admiration for Jaurès - though a civilian and a socialist - because of his ability to grasp military matters.20
A précis. According to Jaurès, society and army have to be brought together: he wants the armed nation. Democracy and morale are of crucial importance. There will be millions of reservists and the number of full-time officers must be drastically reduced, with those who remain kept for purposes of instruction. All levels of public education must contain a military element. The working class movement is to be encouraged to organise military-gymnastic and shooting clubs. Trade unions should make provision for the selection of officer material. Promotion to be decided by panels that include elected representatives of the army rank and file. In the event of a government attempting a counterrevolutionary coup against the “enemy within”, or launching a war of foreign conquest, the new army - the militia army - does its duty to the nation and launches a “constitutional” insurrection.21
The mass parties of the Second International unproblematically promoted the militia idea. 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).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 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).24 Then the Russians: “… general arming of the people instead of maintaining a standing army” (clause c9).25 Even with the newly formed, though hardly Marxist, Labour Party in Britain, there is this call in its first general election manifesto (1900): “Abolition of the standing army, and the establishment of a citizen force.”26
A further point. Having established the hybrid Red Army out of dire necessity - part popular militia, part standing army - Leon Trotsky, Soviet Russia’s commissar for war, looked not to going back to the “wonder working powers of the barracks”, but towards the “militia system”.27
Sad to say, nowadays the majority of the left in Britain, in almost all its piteous manifestations, takes a social-pacifist position: eg, Peace and Justice, Momentum, Young Labour, the Socialist Workers Party, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, Counterfire, etc. There are, naturally, minor differences and gradations: eg, some stand for overt pacifism; others shade over into it. Basically, though, all peddle the same old lie: there can be a lasting peace while capitalism remains.
Stop the War Coalition is their main umbrella. Its steering committee includes representatives of various unions and organisations: FBU, PCS, NEU, Day-Mer and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, as well as the CPB (Andrew Murray and Liz Payne), Morning Star (Ben Chacko), SWP (Judith Orr and Tomáš Tengely-Evans), Counterfire (John Rees, Lindsey German and Chris Nineham), Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Left Unity (Kate Hudson).
StWC statements reek of pacifism. So, when it comes to Ukraine, there are pious pleas for “respecting” UN treaties, national sovereignty and for governments to behave in a less bellicose manner. It sees its particular role as pressurising the British government “to stop fuelling the escalation of conflict in Ukraine” and, instead, favours a “negotiated peace immediately”.28 An approach which effectively lines up the StWC behind António Guterres and the United Nations bureaucracy.
Not surprisingly, any idea, any suggestion of calling for a mass revolutionary party (not yet another bureaucratic-centralist confessional sect), and linking the demand for peace with the struggle for socialism, simply does not occur. After all, that practical first step, in the direction of organising the working class into a class for itself, would be unacceptable to the Labourite and trade union reformists, who actually set the programmatic limits for the entire current crop of so-called united fronts. Eg, Stand Up to Racism, People’s Assembly, StWC, etc, etc.
But what ought to be acceptable, in principle, to any radical, any democrat, certainly any revolutionary, is the demand for the abolition of standing armies (and the police) and their replacement by the armed people - a popular militia. If that demand was tirelessly fought for in the left press and media, in trade union conferences, in parliament, if the demand was directed at new recruits and serving members of the armed forces, if the demand featured prominently on anti-war demonstrations and in election leaflets, manifestos and broadcasts, it would, as wider and wider acceptance was gained, deliver a powerful political and moral blow against the forces of militarism and war.
Certainly, winning the demand for a people’s militia in practice would make a huge contribution to reducing the danger of war. Foreign adventures - especially of the US kind in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan - would be more or less impossible. A militia is made up of civilians and is totally unsuited for fighting long wars in the far abroad. By equal measure, however, foreign invasion would meet the stiffest resistance - resistance in depth, resistance from every angle. True, initially, there might well be defeats. After retreating though, the militia army would make advances by enemy forces ever more difficult by striking back from well-prepared trenches, tunnels and underground bunkers. Sabotage and guerrilla warfare sees the invaders’ supply lines disrupted and eventually broken. Fraternisation and establishing links with the rank and file, class appeals, including to the population back home, help break the hold of the officer caste and bring over enemy units. The militia army, having gathered its strength from the armed people, stages its decisive counter-offensive.
We unashamedly fight for a popular militia. Not a copy of the US National Guard, the Israel Defence Forces, the Ukrainian National Guard or the Swiss Army. Officers must be elected and recallable, discipline self-imposed and military instruction linked to political education.
This is admittedly a reform demand. But, of course, no Marxist discounts the importance of putting forward demands for reform, not least in order to expose opportunists. They would be glad if we left demands for reform to them and them alone. Then they would be free to peddle - unchallenged, unimpeded, unembarrassed - the fantasy of a “just peace”, a “non-annexationist peace” an “enduring peace”, where every country’s sovereignty and legitimate security concerns are guaranteed by legally binding treaties: an StWC fantasy that pulls the wool over the eyes of far too many working class militants, student radicals and anti-war activists.
Thankfully, not least due to our efforts, the opportunists are challenged, are embarrassed, are exposed. Eg, according to Sam Fairbairn, former national secretary of the People’s Assembly, calling for a popular militia is divisive, provocative and certainly beyond the “remit” of the anti-austerity movement, and should therefore be avoided like the plague.29 Strange, given that the People’s Assembly rejects the renewal of Trident, condemns imperialist adventures in the Middle East and opposes unjust and illegal wars.
When it comes to marking the hundredth anniversary of Lenin’s death, the social-pacifist left considers it safe to repeat his call to “make war on war”, but not dissolving the standing army and establishing a people’s militia - Lindsey German of Counterfire being a sadly typical example. Nowhere in her recent ‘What did Lenin have to say about socialism and war?’ article do we find mention of either the army or the militia.30 Amazing.
John Rees, Chris Nineham and Lindsey German broke away from the SWP in 2010 and proudly proclaim, true to form, that Counterfire is a “revolutionary socialist organisation”. Sneakily, however, it is committed to “eliminating unnecessary barriers between our socialist politics and the thousands of activists being drawn into opposition to austerity and war”.31 Presumably, Counterfire considers, for its own opportunist reasons, that the dissolution of the standing army and the formation of a popular militia constitutes one of those “unnecessary barriers”.
Leave aside Fairbairn and Counterfire. A few years ago, we interviewed Dave Nellist, a leading member of the Socialist Party in England and Wales. Revealingly, the comrade refused point-blank to say whether or not he supported the demand for a popular militia.32 In truth he does not, but just does not want to say so. The entire Militant tradition, upheld not only by SPEW, but its Socialist Appeal and Socialist Alternative splits, testifies to a thoroughgoing reformism, as can be seen from The state - a little 1983 pamphlet jointly authored by their three ‘great’ teachers: Ted Grant, Peter Taaffe and Lynn Walsh.33
True, nowadays Alan Woods and his confessional sect have swung from the dullest of dull Labourism to calling themselves ‘communists’. A change brought about, on the one hand, by the abject failure of their campaign to reinstate the old Fabian clause-four version of socialism back into Labour Party rules under the Jeremy Corbyn leadership and, on the other hand, the growing popularity of socialism and communism amongst young people. But, whether they market themselves as Socialist Appeal or the Revolutionary Communist Party, the group’s leaders have no conception, not a clue, about the necessity of a minimum programme. They say, for example, that they want to abolish the police - good. A step forward from previous calls for mere police ‘accountability’. But ask them what they want to replace the police (and the standing army) with - under capitalism (that is, before we achieve socialism) - and they have no answer. Their launch issue of The Communist reports on the “farcical chest beating” of Grant Shapps, but noticeably fails to raise the people’s militia demand or the demand to abolish the standing army.34 If we are to treat their recent ‘communist turn’ with anything short of derision, that needs to change.
At least, Robert Griffiths, general secretary of the Morning Star’s CPB, has the virtue of openly admitting his craven prostration before the bourgeois state. He aggressively dismisses the demand for abolishing the standing army and a popular militia as “nothing to do with real struggle”. Of course, what we are dealing with today, in the here and now, is the battle of ideas. The idea of the popular militia therefore has everything to do with the real ideological struggle between Marxism and reformism. And, when the class struggle rises, becomes intense, the question of the popular militia is posed point blank as an urgent practical necessity. But there is, Griffiths dumbly announces, no revolutionary situation in Britain today - as if Marxists should wait till it is already too late before raising the demand. Either way, Griffiths lambasts what he sees as a CPGB “provocation”. Showing he is just a yellow-belly, he splutters that the very idea of a militia presents “a gift to the British state”. If we dare advocate such an outrage, “MI5 will be around straightaway”.35 Note, for the benefit of comrade Griffiths, if no-one else, MI5 routinely monitors, infiltrates and acts against the left.
However, programmatically, comrade Griffiths is committed to Britain’s road to socialism (a repeatedly updated version of The British road to socialism, first drafted in the early 1950s with the generous help and assistance of JV Stalin). This tawdry, thoroughly reformist document, in all its versions, simply takes the existing armed forces (the police included) as a given. All that is required, when it comes to a “left government”, is replacing “key personnel”.36 Certainly not fighting to abolish the standing army and the police and their replacement by a popular militia. Yes, we are seriously meant to believe that the entire capitalist state apparatus, including the US hegemon, will sit idly by, while some putative left Labour-CPB majority in the House of Commons votes to legislate capitalism out of existence step by careful step. No, counterrevolution would, using the immortal words of Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, “push back”.37 Replacing one Sandhurst-educated officer with another Sandhurst-educated officer makes not a jot of difference.
The latest iteration of the BRS programme (the ninth) myopically peers into the future and a left government, and says this:
The state’s corps of military reservists would have to be expanded and linked with large workplaces and local working-class communities. The trade union movement could be involved in its recruitment, education and administration. Over time, reflecting the development of an independent foreign policy based on peaceful coexistence, the balance of resources will tilt away from a full-time, selective, professional army towards popular military reservists with specialised professional units.38
A mealy-mouthed reformist fudge. Instead of the traditional demand to abolish the standing army there is the expansion of reservists and a “tilting away” towards “popular military reservists”. The open, clear, unambiguous fight for a popular militia is infinitely preferable - in no small part because the demand itself prepares millions of minds to expect capitalist armed coups and outside interventions against an actual or expected communist popular majority, but also in part because the demand can be practically realised, even if only partially, by establishing workers’ defence squads, red guards, etc … and winning army, navy and airforce units over to socialism and a position where they agree to only obey orders issued in effect by the Communist Party itself.
Clearly comrade Griffiths is no revolutionary though. Faced with a Young Communist League gone a little bit rogue, he clamped down with this edict, which effectively bans his minions from even discussing the militia question:
… it is essential that the party and its members do not publish or post anything that could be interpreted as support for the possession of weapons in Britain or for armed struggle at home or - except when explicitly endorsed by our party - abroad. Party members should make themselves aware of the home office list of proscribed terrorist organisations.39
So the idea of possessing arms in Britain is explicitly ruled out of order, while armed struggle in Britain, including resisting a coup, or a US regime-change operation, is likewise fearfully rejected. Doubtless, Griffiths - a home office ‘communist’, if ever there was one - thinks the words of The Internationale are a risky provocation too, that most certainly should not be published or posted either. Here is 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.40
That and, of course, Charles and his prostate, Kate’s abdominal operation and Israeli allegations about a dozen UNRWA employees being involved in the October 7 attack.↩︎
The Guardian January 26 2024.↩︎
The Independent January 26 2024.↩︎
The Daily Telegraph January 29 2024.↩︎
The Sun January 24 2024.↩︎
The Mirror January 27 2024.↩︎
Daily Mail January 18 2024.↩︎
Editorial Morning Star January 25 2024.↩︎
CPGB Draft programme London 2023, p32.↩︎
Eg, writing to Engels, Marx describes Machiavelli’s History of Florence as a “masterpiece” (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 40, London 1983, p187). In his Dialects of nature Engels praises Machiavelli as the “first notable military author of modern times” (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 25, London 1987, p319).↩︎
S Cornell The other founders: anti-federalism and the dissenting tradition in America, 1788-1828 Chapel Hill 1999, p161.↩︎
K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 7, Moscow 1977, p3.↩︎
K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 27, London 1990, p371.↩︎
C de Gaulle Letters, notes and notebooks, 1919-June 1940 Paris 1980, p 448.↩︎
See J Jaurès Oeuvres tome 13: ‘L’armie nouvelle’, 2012. An abbreviated translation was published in 1916 and can be found on the Marxist Internet Archive: 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 Hainfeld programme.↩︎
I Dale (ed) Labour Party general election manifestos 1900-1997 London 2002, p9.↩︎
L Trotsky How the revolution armed Vol 2, London 1979, pp163-92.↩︎
StWC press release, June 6 2022.↩︎
‘No controversy, please’ Weekly Worker December 10 2015: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1086/no-controversy-please.↩︎
Counterfire January 23 2024.↩︎
‘Over a pint in the pub’ Weekly Worker May 21 2009: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/770/over-a-pint-in-the-pub.↩︎
T Grant, P Taaffe and L Walsh The state: a warning to the labour movement London 1983.↩︎
The Communist January 24 2024.↩︎
‘A well ordered militia’ Weekly Worker February 5 2015: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1044/a-well-ordered-militia.↩︎
Britain’s road to socialism Croydon 2020, p64.↩︎
The Guardian June 9 2019.↩︎
Britain’s road to socialism Croydon 2020, p64.↩︎
CPB members’ bulletin, Unity!: www.communistparty.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/September-2021-Unity_.pdf.↩︎