Our sort of army: Red Guards unit of the Vulkan factory in 1917 Russia

Banging the drums of war

Rishi Sunak’s dismal national service plan is certain to flop. However, Paul Demarty takes the opportunity to renew the call for a people’s militia

There is a general air of desperation at Tory headquarters after Rishi Sunak’s decision to call an early election. It was clear immediately after Sunak got himself soaked announcing it, in pure teleprompter style: “Things can only get wetter”, said the press.

So it is, also, with his grand proposal to bring back national service, with 18-year-olds given the choice of joining the armed forces or taking part in various do-gooder activities on weekends. This is not wholly senseless. After all, after 14 years of Tory rule, there is little enough for youngsters to do. David Cameron’s “great society” plan, which included a variant of the same policy (the ‘National Citizen Service’), offered nothing to them in practice: it was merely an idea of a policy that might have solved the problem of listless youth; the reality that came was the crushing of what local democracy had survived the tenures of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair. People who, in spite of everything, cared naively for their communities had merely to suck it up; and now, as municipality after municipality falls into bankruptcy, the bill comes due.

It is, moreover, a policy with a certain pedigree among the older voters who make up the Tory shock troops at election time. A mystified version of the last period of mandatory national service, which began after World War II and continued until the early 60s, holds a certain totemic importance. Some who went through that experience were thankful for it, thought it made a man out of them (not all, as my own late grandfather or John Lennon could have told them). They worry, as the old tend to do, about the dissolution of today’s youth, and reach for the imaginary certitudes of the past to solve this problem for them.

That is, ultimately, a rather foolish illusion. It is no accident that the 60s counterculture followed on so quickly from national service in this country - and from the GI bill, which sent so many returning soldiers to college, in the United States. What was planned as a national character-building process in fact imported the ambiguous feelings of these men into society at large - not always, but sometimes, in politically oppositional forms; the culturally oppositional forms were likewise numerous.


It is these two sides of the problem that make Sunak’s doomed proposal interesting. The anomie to which it aims to respond is, after all, quite real. As an example: we have written before about the strange influence of Andrew Tate among young men and teenage boys.1 We wrote at the time that his popularity betokened an alarming gullibility, that had its roots in the atomisation of contemporary society. All morally serious people ought to be worried by this spiritual rot, and national service is - if nothing else - a ready-to-hand Tory ‘solution’ to this problem. Time spent at a real task ought to cure young minds of the poison on offer from such grifters.

As such, it is difficult to object. It is precisely the unreality of life in these little internet cults that both concerns ‘right-thinking people’ and, paradoxically, makes it difficult for the direct victims to make a break for freedom. Freedom seems to be right there in front of them, in the form of the grifter’s pitch, while it does not appear to be so if they grow up playing by the rules of our idiotically dysfunctional societies.

National service is, therefore, a plausible rightwing response to the deleterious effects of rightwing political practice. We have noted David Cameron’s former enthusiasm for the idea. Sunak’s version seems to owe a lot to that of Adrian Pabst’s proposal for a “national civic service”:

the recovery from 40 years of liberal economics will also require a new civilian service: people, especially the young and the old, either building or using their skills to make a contribution to society. This could take the form of helping elderly people at home, in hospitals or in care homes, mentoring children in schools or extra-curricular activities and helping new residents integrate into the communities by teaching them English and civic education.2

Of course, Pabst - a ‘post-liberal’ pseudo-leftist (basically a ‘blue Labour’ type) - offers both a more ambitious version and one more clearly purged of militarism. The Sunakite variant perhaps draws from the ideas of a Tory think tank called ‘Onward’, which proposed its own cunning plan, but it too shies away from the military aspect.3 Perhaps to his credit, Sunak understands that the question of war is essential to the role national service plays in the reactionary psyche.

One party not so enthusiastic about the military component of the plan is … the military. Not two days before Sunak’s big announcement, under-secretary for defence Andrew Murrison told the Financial Times in no uncertain terms that the plan was insane: “We have to involve all our people with training other people and looking after them [rather than] divert us from the task in hand”4 … And, further:

If potentially unwilling national service recruits were to be obliged to serve alongside the professional men and women of our armed forces, it could damage morale, recruitment and retention and would consume professional military and naval resources.5

But at least making the national service call does play a useful role in banging the drums of war and persuading, at least a portion of the electorate, that it is right to prioritise guns over butter. Note both the Tories and Labour support Nato’s proxy war in Ukraine and increased ‘defence’ spending.

So far as the civilian aspect of all this goes, things are in their own way quite as ropey. It amounts to attempting to nudge youngsters into doing jobs for free that they could just as well do as paid labour. They will, after all, presumably be dispatched into activities for which there is some demand in the labour market. The result will likely be the same as with Cameron’s National Citizen Service, which never had a wide uptake and had its funding finally slashed in 2022, under the watchful eye of the chancellor of the day: a certain Rishi Sunak.

It seems, then, that this flagship policy is all of a piece with the launch of Sunak’s campaign as a whole - a damp (or rather a sodden) squib. The army does not want ‘recruits’ of this sort - resentful youngsters cajoled into a year of misery before release into the wild. It is not clear who does want it. A respectable plurality of Britons support its reintroduction, according to issue polling over the years, but there is no evidence that it preys on their minds with any great urgency, compared to economic health, public services, immigration numbers and crime. It gives the rightwing press something to run with, but nothing terribly useful.


For our purposes, of course, the policy has some additional interest. We are - like the boomer reactionaries presumably to be enticed by national service - advocates of universal military training. This policy has fallen out of favour to a large extent in the contemporary left, but a hundred years ago was extremely common. Standing volunteer armies had never been popular on the left, and still less standing police forces. Our forebears were all too aware of the uses to which such regiments were put, suppressing revolt domestically and abroad, and posing the danger of all out warfare. As Friedrich Engels put it in Can Europe disarm? back in 1893,

The system of standing armies has been carried to such extremes throughout Europe that it must either bring economic ruin to the peoples on account of the military burden, or else degenerate into a general war of extermination, unless the standing armies are transformed in good time into a militia based on the universal arming of the people.6

Given the disasters of 1914-18 and 1939-45, to say nothing of endless other slaughters in the colonial world, Engels has been handily proven right by history.

Our policy is, naturally, quite different from that of the Tory government and the broader national service lobby. We propose the militia not as a peculiar appendage of the permanent armed forces, but as an alternative to them. Militias are extremely useful as defensive formations, and not so useful as tools of aggression and dominance in global politics - more to the good. We support the democratic organisation of such bodies, with the election of officers by the rank and file. The monopoly of the state on armed force would thus be qualified, at least, even if these remained state bodies so long as the state continued to exist. A democratically organised militia would be one more check on tyranny.

The use of conscription for civilian purposes is not quite so storied in the tradition, but has occurred to some. Vladimir Lenin, in his third ‘Letter from afar’ following the February revolution of 1917, which focused on the militia question, hints at the possibilities when he notes that:

… in the severe crisis that all the belligerent countries are experiencing, it would make it possible to combat this crisis in a really democratic way, … rapidly to distribute grain and other supplies, introduce ‘universal labour service’ …

Has the proletariat of Russia shed its blood only in order to receive fine promises of political democratic reforms and nothing more? Can it be that it will not demand, and secure, that every toiler should forthwith see and feel some improvement in his life? That every family should have bread? That every child should have a bottle of good milk and that not a single adult in a rich family should dare take extra milk until children are provided for? That the palaces and rich apartments abandoned by the tsar and the aristocracy should not remain vacant, but provide shelter for the homeless and the destitute? Who can carry out these measures except a people’s militia?7

The context for such proposals is important - a revolutionary situation opened by military disaster, and the consequent economic dislocation. Yet it gets to something important. The militia is the true “arsenal of democracy”. It could only work with true mass participation. Bored youths on the world’s worst gap year would not cut it. The tradition here is the Parisian national guardsmen who formed the Commune of 1871, and further back the levée en masse that got the men needed to defend the French Revolution from invasion by aristocratic Europe.

Britain’s youth

Indeed, that is perhaps the ultimate stupidity of Sunak’s policy. It is motivated as a way of toughening up Britain’s youth, who have been made ‘soft’ by … (insert your favourite moral panic here). Yet that is truly to put the cart before the horse. National service of the Tory sort might have some real utility to the British state if the youth were already on board; if young people could be expected to throw themselves into it, to dedicate some meaningful portion of their lives to the armed forces, and most of all to shame their wavering peers into participating, as the revolutionary youth of 1789 and 1917 might have been expected to do, but also (for that matter), as my own peers, coming of age in a garrison town after 9/11, did, as they enthusiastically signed up in what they wrongly took to be their country’s hour of need.

Yet it is offered merely as a cheap voting incentive to atomised, paedophobic and possibly fictional Herbert Gussett types in the shires, whose real problem with the young is their crude graffiti and the terrible, terrifying rap music they play on their phones in the local park.

Sunak’s government rightly had no interest in such a policy until a week ago. Can anyone take it seriously?

  1. ‘School for scoundrels’, February 9 2023 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1429/school-for-scoundrels).↩︎

  2. A Pabst Post-liberal politics Cambridge 2021, p167.↩︎

  3. www.ukonward.com/reports/great-british-national-service.↩︎

  4. www.ft.com/content/56c7a24f-06b7-472a-921c-248b58cfd1b2.↩︎

  5. www.ft.com/content/e665f1e6-e1e2-4401-9aee-c1d9a48cc896.↩︎

  6. wikirouge.net/texts/en/Can_Europe_Disarm%3F_(1893).↩︎

  7. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/lfafar/third.htm.↩︎