When Soldiers Lay Down Their Arms

The paradox, though, is that those ranged behind the wire, driving the tanks and firing into the crowds are, in their vast majority, young working-class men obeying orders barked at them by (mainly) men of a different class. As Karl Liebknecht put it in his famous 1907 pamphlet Militarism and Anti-Militarism, “Modern militarism wants nothing less than to square the circle; it arms the people against the people itself; it is insolent enough to force the workers… to become oppressors, enemies and murderers of their own class comrades and friends.”

More than workers in uniform

How they are forced is key to the way in which we address the central problem that every revolution faces and must resolve: what are the circumstances in which a working-class soldier can be reminded that those he faces across the line of shields are his class comrades, and that he should cross the line and join them? The class to which they belong is objectively clear: just listen to the roll call of the dead from Iraq to Afghanistan and the areas they come from, and notice how rarely an officer’s name joins them or a middle-class suburb is included in the list of places of origin. But the soldier’s subjective condition, his or her class consciousness, does not follow automatically from the material facts of birth and upbringing.

We have all seen enough Hollywood films about the basic training of soldiers to know what that training is about. The brutal, sadistic sergeant, the relentless chanting of aggressive slogans, the punishments, the physical deprivation, the refusal of leave, the growing shared identity of the frightened recruits. It is the stuff of every post-Vietnam military movie. And it is real. That recruitment has a purpose that is not overtly ideological, yet it prepares the ground well for the ideological assault to come.

First, the soldier has to be isolated from his or her class — physically, socially, mentally. The uniform does that; it is a symbolic shedding of all those links. The training serves to break down resistance, to create a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, a dependence on the military institution in the violent vacuum in which they are trapped. A number of recent cases in Britain of the deaths of young soldiers during their initiation have exposed how savagely brutal the process is. But the soldiers are not left without identity; the group of recruits replaces the community they came from. They almost certainly have a similar background, but their new identity is forged under siege, at first in the training camp and then in the reality of the exercise of their role, when they are surrounded by enemies in a world of aliens. And all of this is especially true in an era of professional armies, where the commitment is more long- term and the separation more absolute.

They are not left without a community. Now they belong to a new collective — a “Nation” which is internally undifferentiated, has no classes, and is united around fear of the eternal enemy. And they are its defenders. Hollywood in the 1950s always elected to represent communists as enemy aliens, sometimes even aliens from outer space (as in the 1980s TV series V) or, more recently, from a strange dark Arab world which was, as Samuel Huntington argued, threatening civilization itself  (not our civilization, let it be it noted).

So it is not enough simply to say that “soldiers are workers in uniform;” objectively this is true, but it is not how soldiers see themselves. The community of their class is replaced at the global level by the community of the Nation, while at the local level they are part of a tight community of soldiers dependent on one another for their very survival.

But that identification with the ruling class masquerading as Nation has been broken time and again. The Arab Spring brought back the issue in the most dramatic way, when the tanks rolled into Tahrir Square bearing banners proclaiming “Army and people are one hand.” That was two years ago. Today every sign points to an attempt to reimpose a version of the previous regime, and the key weapon in carrying through that threat is, once again, the army.

So when and how did revolutionary movements “win the soul of the army”?

When armies crack

In Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1918-23 soldiers and sailors formed their own democratic councils  and mutinied or threatened to mutiny against the rulers they had served with such sacrifice for most of the First World War. The human cost had begun by the latter part of the war to weigh heavily. In both cases the demands of the state and the high command became too great to bear.

The manifest incompetence of the Russian high command was coupled with the slow disintegration of the ruling class itself. The Tsar’s insistence on taking control of military strategy failed not only because of his incapacity, but because of the extravagant and frivolous life style that persisted in the royal court while soldiers suffered hunger, thirst, and the despair of an unwinnable war.

In Germany the army originally recruited mainly from rural populations and explicitly refused to take workers who had been involved in the Social Democratic Party or its trade union affiliates. As the trenches took their toll, however, workers began to be recruited en masse and women were employed in war industry to replace them. But the letters from home that reached the trenches spoke of the desperate situation of their families (the average daily calorie intake was not much above 1000, putting people on the edge of starvation). At the same time, the men returning on leave, or writing back to wives and lovers, described the hedonistic lifestyle they observed in the officers’ mess at the front while they and their families were going hungry.

In Germany it was the Russian Revolution of 1917 that tipped the balance. The Tsar, the enemy against whom millions of Germans had been sent to fight, had been overthrown by a revolution. The impact on the German working class was dramatic. Despite the collapse of its own leaders (with the exception of Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and a few others) into national chauvinism and support for the war in 1914, the working class still had as a reference point a German Social Democratic Party which in 1907 had denounced imperialist wars, though it was already deeply divided between a rightward-moving leadership and a more militant rank and file. In 1914 the party had over one million members and over two and a half million in its affiliated trade unions. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were both imprisoned for sedition — but they were widely supported by the grassroots of the party.

The support for war credits by the right-wing SPD leadership allayed the fears of the High Command about recruiting workers — and the SPD leaders collaborated by providing lists of known left-wingers to be sent to the front, where many were killed. The navy, the most technically advanced section of the armed forces, recruited industrial workers, the most militant and heavily unionized section of the class. And despite the enthusiastic support of the SPD leaders for war, the morale of the soldiers at the front collapsed in the face of its barbarous reality.

There was a deepening frustration and discontent in the trenches, but “whereas the worker may refuse to work and thereby slow production down, if the soldier strikes and refuses to obey orders he cannot just stand still. He will be shot or he will shoot first” (Paul Frohlich). By early 1916 demonstrations and strikes against the war were beginning to occur across Germany. In Berlin on May 1, 1916 a demonstration of 10 000 workers led by Liebknecht marched to the parliament. Liebknecht was arrested for shouting “Down with war!” More and more workers joined Liebknecht and Luxemburg’s Spartacus League, and the hegemony of the old SPD leaders was broken. By 1918 there was a wave of strikes, beginning in February with over half a million workers marching behind banners proclaiming both economic and political demands. And talk of an uprising was in the air, inspired by the the formation of councils in the Russian armed forces and by the revolution of October 1917.

The German Revolution began in the naval port of Kiel in August 1918; when the fleet was ordered to sail, several crews refused the orders. When their leaders were arrested the strike spread. By November 2 the insurrection had begun and the soldiers ordered to repress the strike formed a workers’ and soldiers’ council and refused to fire on their fellow workers.

The insurrection, however, was neither spontaneous nor solely the consequence of the conditions of life inside and outside the army. For the soldiers and sailors of Germany in late 1918 class was not an abstraction but the living reality of a powerful socialist movement, one that had grown and deepened its roots in the period before the insurrection. By then there was, in a sense, an equivalence of power between the army and the working-class movement. The myth of a unified nation was exposed in the streets of Germany, where soldiers and sailors in uniform and organized workers marched together.

Defeated revolts

There were other mutinies of course. One was a repressed rising by the sailors of Kiel in August 1917. There were mutinies in the French army from 1917, in the German army in 1918, and among Irish, Canadian, and British troops towards the end of the war. But they were acts of despair and were quickly and savagely broken For example, in a Welsh cemetery there are graves of 18 Canadians  whose deaths were suspiciously attributed to a bout of flu. The real likelihood is that they were shot after mutinying. In Italy in 1919, the experiences at the front had produced a deep anti-war feeling and, according to the Italian revolutionary socialist Antonio Gramsci, “links of solidarity… which would have taken decades of historical experience and intermittent struggles to form.” But, tragically, the returning soldiers were met by a working-class movement dominated by an Italian Socialist Party (the PSI) which held them apart and attacked the minority around Gramsci who were arguing for revolutionary unity. The German revolution was eventually defeated by ultra-right-wing mercenary forces (the Freikorps) and by the treachery of the SPD leadership.

The experience of the Spanish Civil War was perhaps the first experience in the 20th century of what in the Paris Commune of 1871 was described as “a people under arms,” a military force subject to the political control of the mass movement. The resistance to the fascist rising of July 1936 was in the first instance a political mobilization. George Orwell describes in his Homage to Catalonia how he found an army without ranks or any of the other paraphernalia of the military institution — uniforms, salutes and the rest. This is more than just anecdotal, since all these things were signals of both the separation of the army from the people and of its hierarchical structures that mirrored a capitalist social order. Here instead was an army that mirrored class solidarity in its language and rituals, a revolutionary army. And it was no accident that after the crushing of the revolutionary left in May 1937 the first act of the now-dominant Stalinist organizations in the Spanish Republic was to repress the revolution and reimpose, as a first priority, ranks and salutes in the military. The experience of the anti-fascist committees during the Spanish Revolution (July 1936-May 1937) gives a clear example of what we mean by politics leading arms.

Vietnam and Chile

Vietnam is another very clear example of how an army can begin to fall apart. The story is well known. An army that was disproportionately Black and Latino heard the chants from the Civil Rights movement at home and watched Muhammad Ali refuse to sign up and explain why with “no Vietnamese ever called me nigger.” Soldiers experienced the relentless resistance of a well-organized National Liberation Front and the military defeats that followed the Tet offensive, and they took refuge in the hard drugs that were so liberally available. More significantly, they refused orders in greater and greater numbers and “fragged” their officers if they tried to impose them. But what is most dramatic is the contradictory consciousness of US soldiers in Vietnam: the ability to carry out murderous repression in the morning and throw a hand grenade into the tent of an officer in the afternoon. They were deeply influenced by the anti-war movement at home, but ambivalent about it too — because unlike the revolutions in Germany and Russia, the anti-war movement could only organize at home, and with hesitations.

For me the issue arose in the context of opposing the Vietnam War and most poignantly in the wake of the Chilean coup of 1973. There were important political organizations active in Chile – the Socialist and Communist Parties were both mass parties, and the revolutionary left had significant support — and yet there was no division in the army, though the rumours persisted for months after the coup that there were. In fact, Salvador Allende had given the armed forces’ commanders carte blanche to repress internal dissent two months before the coup; revolutionaries in the armed forces were already imprisoned and tortured before September 11, 1973. And despite assurances to the contrary the political parties and trade unions were totally unprepared for a coup that had been repeatedly and openly foretold. In the end the illusion that the armed forces were neutral, fostered by Allende himself and his supporters in the Socialist and Communist parties, provoked the worst violence imaginable.

Thus a breakdown of the state or of the social order, for whatever reason, creates conditions in which the mass movement can divide an army — but this does not happen automatically. The existence of a movement exerting its class power is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Portugal during the revolution of 1974-75 offers a clear and dramatic example. It could be argued that the institutions of the state lost control there for nearly 18 months before the counter-revolution seized control in November 1975. Yet in each of these cases – in Portugal, in Spain, in Chile, in Germany, in Russia — there emerged forms of social organization that were harbingers of a different order, a profound socialist democracy. In the end they were crushed by state violence — but for a moment in each case the state trembled and cracked. At that moment it is politics that determines the outcome – the vision of a different world, the subordination of arms to politics, the exercise of a collective power strong enough to convince the soldiers and the sailors that they can cross the line into a different future.

Mike Gonzalez is a long-time British socialist who edited, with Houman Barekat, Arms and the People (Pluto Press, 2012).