From cadets to militias

Gordon Brown agrees with the call for military training in schools. Jim Moody puts the communist view

Quentin Davies MP - Labour’s Tory recruit - is finalising a major government-commissioned review of civil and military relations in British society. Amongst his many recommendations is the idea that there should be more cadet forces in comprehensive schools. Promoted as a way of improving relations between the public and the armed forces, Gordon Brown has seized on this idea as a way of currying favour with New Labour’s target audience, the bigoted, backward looking Daily Mail readership.

Of course, it is not new. Indeed, two years ago, Brown himself became the darling of the rightwing press when he piloted this venture into 1950s nostalgia. “Pupils at six state schools will be the first to try out military training as part of an expansion of the cadet forces, chancellor Gordon Brown announced today” (Daily Mail June 27 2006).

The same article highlighted the institutional gap that the Davis proposals are seeking to address: “... there are around 42,000 cadets based in schools as part of the CCF (Combined Cadet Force)” who are funded by the ministry of defence to the tune of £80 million a year. “But the vast majority - 201 out of 253 units - are based at independent schools.” Brown’s pilot scheme saw the number of cadet units in state schools rise from 52 to 60. And that out of well over 4,000 comprehensive schools in the UK.

What of the 201 military cadet forces at fee-paying schools (a sector which accounts for 10% of UK schools)? Anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing seen Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film If will get the flavour of how things still are. Military values are integrated into the fabric of certain such schools. Brown is seeking to copy that model … but applied to the lower orders. And, as he hoped, there have been reactionary cheers.

True, some commentators have expressed concern that teaching youth (for which, read ‘working class youth’) how to shoot could provide an escalation in random or gang-led firearms incidents. They want to ‘keep guns off the streets’. Of course, this sentiment ignores the widespread and increasing parading and use of police firearms on the streets. But putting  that aside, the use of guns on the streets by non-police individuals or in gang-related incidents is not likely to be affected too much by whether or not youngsters are trained in military units within secondary schools.

The Daily Telegraph, an enthusiast for the proposals, makes an obvious point: “… the primary function of a cadet force is not to train children for military service, but to inculcate initiative and responsibility” (April 7).

No-one denies that the use of firearms by lumpen criminals is a problem. But, as with interpersonal violence generally, this is related to existing and widening wealth disparities. Societies with extremes of wealth and poverty breed violence (usually poor on poor). So the answer does not lie in yet more gun controls. Firearms are always readily obtainable by those who want them, in the way that is usual under capitalism: for a price. On the other hand, in societies where the possession of firearms is common, such as Canada and Switzerland, there are relatively low levels of gun crime.

We can, however, view this move by Brown in an entirely different light. As an opportunity. Cadet units have the potential to provide the trained personnel needed for workers’ militias. Hence, albeit critically, the idea of school students receiving basic military training can be  welcomed by communists. The crucial question, of course, is what the working class movement does to turn the cadet units into their opposite.

The organisation of disciplined proletarian youth into squads and larger formations would be following in well trod footsteps. Revolutionary democrats and militant workers during the 19th century saw the demand for a popular militia as elementary. Where possible, self-defence was organised. The 20th century too is full of examples. In the 1926 General Strike workers organised defence units. And in the 1984-85 Great Strike miners and their supporters set up hit squads to ensure that pickets were effective and that scabs were intimidated with whatever level of force was required.

Familiarity with weapons and military tactics, gained from school, would help undermine the monopoly enjoyed at present by the armed forces in the UK. In the future we look forward to the situation where every working class and democratic demonstration can be protected by our own security force. We ought not to have the boys and girls in blue shepherding us along the streets of our own towns and cities. Certainly we can only hope to win state power by developing our own armed units.

Unfortunately, most of the left has abandoned the fine traditions of republican democracy for the cosy world of electoralism. The Socialist Workers Party is typical. In 1984-85 it derided calls for workers’ defence corps as ‘ultra-left’. Today its Left List and Lindsey German stand on a sub-reformist platform for the forthcoming May 1 elections.

Most of the left in Britain, Europe and beyond wallows in what is essentially class collaboration on this question. Failing to call for workers’ self-defence and a popular militia to replace the standing armed forces, the police included, almost means defeat before the battle has even started. Let us note that even Eduard Bernstein, father of revisionism in the Second International, demanded a popular militia. So our present-day revolutionaries place themselves on this issue to the right of the rightwing social democrat, Bernstein.

One of the reasons bourgeois military theoreticians were glad to see the back of conscription was the danger that working class and socialist ideas were being taken into the armed forces. That ‘danger’, to us  an opportunity, opens up with the formation of these school cadet forces.