by Dave Lamb
"Our experience accustoms us to seeing how at a word of command a mass of soldiers will enter into an organised fury of carnage and into the lottery of life and death, and how at another command they will again become peaceful. The same thing is required of a people that has armed itself. Here the word of command is liberty, the enemy tyranny. . . But there is a great difference between the passivity of ordinary military obedience and the ardour of an insurrection: between obedience to the order of a general and the flame of enthusiasm which liberty pours into the vein of every creature. . These efforts are the enjoyment of liberty, and you wish it to be renounced; these occupations, this activity is for the public cause, this interest is the driving force, and you want the people to sink into inertia and boredom once more."
G.W.F. Hegel (1)
These words were written a hundred years before the 1914-1918 war, yet they capture the sentiments of the forgotten men and women of that period who decided to take a hand in their own destiny. Hegel drew attention to the timeless urge to self-determination and to the joy which accompanies a victory of mutineers or insurrectionists over tyrants, bureaucrats, manipulators, and sanguinary generals. In the following pages I have tried to uncover some of the conveniently forgotten moments of freedom which flowered in the shadow of total war.
Between 1917 and 1919 a series of mutinies took place amongst the world's most disciplined armies. The Russian, German, Italian and French forces as well as the British all 'suffered' major outbreaks. Yet many of these events have virtually been ignored by historians of both right and left-wing persuasions. Mutinies, like heath fires, burst our here and there and as such are inexplicable to those whose criterion for revolutionary activity is that it should be bound up with a clearly defined goal and with a strategy, usually embodied in a revolutionary leadership. Accordingly an outbreak of autonomous activity is seen by the leadership fetishists to be purposeless and mindless. Marx was speaking for future Fabians and Leninists when he said:
'A motley crew of mutineering soldiers who have murdered their officers, torn asunder the ties of discipline, and not succeeded in discovering a man on whom to bestow supreme command are certainly the body least likely to organise a serious and protracted resistance.' (2) There is here a conception of social change as an orderly, disciplined activity. This conception is reflected in the tendency of both Leninists and Fabians to see themselves as the elite officer corps, imparting their will on the direction of social change. It is difficult to see from this standpoint how people might have aims and aspirations of their own, which are not always comprehensible to their self-appointed leaders.
One of the reasons why mutinies are largely ignored is because most historians tend to see the aims and objectives of the masses through the eyes of leaders or institutions that claim to represent popular interests. In this way the problems of the leaders become the problems of the class. Lenin's problems in 1917 become those of Russian workers. The problems facing the TUC become those of the British working class. In this perspective the mutinies in the Russian Army of 1917 are important insofar as they furthered Lenin's objectives. Mutinies in the British armies are deemed relatively insignificant because they were not subordinated to some external movement.
That ordinary men and women might have their own goals is conveniently ignored by historians whose vision is restricted to the ambitions and strategies of those in power or seeking to achieve it. This, to a certain extent, is understandable since the historian is very much at the mercy of his sources (press reports, autobiographies, and institutional minutes are usually the expression of the point of view of those who have made them). It is easy to deal with the memoirs of a Haig, a Petain or a Ludendorff. Conversely, it is 'uninteresting' and difficult to record the aspirations of those millions of Russians who collectively destroyed centuries of Tsardom because of their decision to return home, and their willingness to disobey and even kill their officers in the process.
We are living in an age where the aspirations of the collective are unable to find expression; the medium for such expression is limited to the individualistic categories of the bourgeois epoch. A sometimes all-too-willing victim of his medium, the historian tends to look at mass autonomous movements through the eyes of those who seek to direct the process, the spokespersons, the revolutionary generals, the political programmes and revolutionary textbooks. The historian looks to those who have staked their claim to impose their will upon human history. And in so doing those countless millions struggling for some control over their destiny are largely ignored. We can perceive why governments and military authorities have concealed information about mutinies. We can equally understand why those countless hacks who write history in order to justify the status quo do not demand the release of information. But why has this area been neglected by allegedly left-wing historians? Could it be that what happened ran counter to the presuppositions of both Fabians and Leninists that meaningful activity could only be envisaged in relation to some structure of authority? The mutinies in the United Kingdom did not throw up any such permanent structures and, for this reason, have been ignored by those who see social change as dominated by permanent institutions led by experts whose interests are antagonistic to autonomous mass activity.
A concentration on leadership strategies can blind one to some of the most powerful forces in history. For example, did the American government's decision to pull out of Vietnam arise out of the wily schemes of Richard Nixon? Were the Americans out-manoeuvred at the negotiating table? Perhaps it was the brilliant strategy of the North Vietnamese generals? Historians will grow fat on their published ponderings over these issues. But what about the fact that hundreds of thousands of GI's could no longer be relied upon? No one organised them. They left no permanent structures behind, yet their resistance had a profound effect on world history. It might be said that they were acting in the interests of 'world communism' but hardly one of them would accept this as an explicit motive. They just wanted to go home.
The following pages are an account of mutinies which occurred among UK and Commonwealth troops. There will be no attempt to impute any motives other than those put forward at the time by the participants themselves.
Perhaps the most significant factor in this sadly neglected chapter in working class history is the emergence of equalitarian tendencies, unstinting self-sacrifice and loyalty to one's comrades under conditions capable of bringing out the worst in men. A mutiny against arbitrary authority provokes situations where class loyalties are put to the severest test. If properly understood the mutinies within the armed forces during the First World War will stand as one of the great landmarks of working class history.
...There is little doubt that during the years 1918-1920 Britain was near to a social revolution, much nearer in fact than in the well publicised days of 1926. The collapse of the General Strike ended the era during which the ruling classes trembled. The mutinies we have described cannot be separated from the revolutionary events that were sweeping across the industrialised world. There is no doubt that they represent a significant chapter in working class history.
The evidence presented shows that for a while the power of the armed forces had slipped out of the control of the ruling classes. This raises fundamental questions concerning the role of the 'working class leaders' of this period. Apart from their resignation from the National Industrial Conference (in full glare and publicity) the TUC leaders were very careful to avoid any course of action that could have led to a common front between workers and members of the armed forces. Leaders of the Triple Alliance were aware of the mood of the country and of the state of the armed forces. Smillies' account of Lloyd George's remarks to the leaders of the Triple Alliance is very revealing: 'The Army is disaffected and cannot be relied upon. Trouble has already occurred in a number of camps. If you ... strike, then you will defeat us'. (68)
The trade union leaders were conscious of their role in this critical period. This was clearly shown by T. E. Naylor, leader of the London Society of Compositors and later a Labour MP. In 1922 he pleaded for the government to help the unemployed, reminding them that in 1919 it was the 'responsible' trade unionists who had prevented 'the revolution which would undoubtedly have broken out'.
The trade union leaders never had any intention to defeat the government or the employers. The major task of the organisers of labour was the same then as it is today: to deliver a docile labour force, pacified by insignificant pay increases, and to replace struggle centred on genuine grievances with rhetoric about nationalisation and other red herrings. To grasp this point is to understand why the Labour leaders of 1919 did not take advantage of the support which radical policies could have had from the army.
The possibility of successful revolution in Britain is only one of the many questions raised by our account of the collapse of the British Army. Another question is : 'to what extent did mutinies in both the Army and the Navy limit the war of intervention against Russia?' A critique of the Russian Revolution lies beyond the scope of this work. (69) Certain questions, however, have at least to be asked. 'Just how serious was the threat to the Russian Revolution from the hostile capitalist world?'. America was only marginally Involved. Britain, as we have seen, was In no position to maintain any substantial force in Russia. Neither were France or Germany. If the threat from the capitalist world was relatively minor, how much credence can we give to the Leninist excuses for repression, usually 'justified' by the existence of hostile foreign forces, poised to intervene against the revolution? Or was it that the repressive policies had their origins in the theory and practice of Bolshevism, as initiated by Lenin and Trotsky? (70)
If the Russian Revolution was 'allowed' to happen by virtue of the fact that soldiers in the West were unwilling to suppress it - often for no stronger motive than a sensible wish to go home - then questions are raised concerning the real location of the Russian Revolution. For instance, were the victories of the Red Army determined on the Russian battlefields or In the dockyards of Southampton, Hamburg and Marseilles? How significant were the demands for instant demobilisation by the Western Soldiers' and Sailors' Councils in determining the initial victories of the Russian Revolution?
Conversely to what extent was the containment of the European revolutionary movements by the Social Democratic parties and by the trade unions the result of the same social force responsible for the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution? Revolutions are not isolated events. They reflect social pressures capable of transcending continents. So do mutinies - which are essential ingredients of revolutionary change. For these reasons it is nonsense to speak of the first working class revolution having taken place in Russia. Conversely, when we speak of the bureaucratisation of the Russian Revolution it is even more nonsensical to speak as if this were simply due to the special circumstances of Russia.
The foregoing account is not intended to provide a list of martyrs for this or that cause. For us libertarians it matters little whether. In the long run, the mutinies we have described benefited Russia, Dublin, Germany or what. There is a limit to the consequences of an action beyond which the attribution of causality becomes philosophical speculation. It would be a falsification of history to say that most of these men had any clear picture of the society to which their efforts were geared. No! What is significant in these mutinies is the way men come together, in adverse and dangerous circumstances, in a spirit of solidarity and self-sacrifice that has seldom been equalled. This is of real significance to libertarians, seeking the spirit of freedom in history's darkest hours.
None of the struggles here described were inspired or directed by any vanguard party. At the same time it is clear that there was a widespread sense of sympathy with the Russian Revolution, bound up with the belief (however expressed) that fundamental change could only be brought about by collective working class action.
Moreover, while there was no directing Central Committee or Revolutionary General Staff (soldiers had had enough of these, already) conflicts in the armed forces were not limited to sporadic, isolated outbursts. What comes across loud and clear is that in spite of a legal situation in which it did not pay to advertise them, the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen's Councils forged many links both within the armed forces and with workers in struggle. What happened in the armed forces was simply part of a broad social movement, the full extent of which has yet to be adequately assessed. This movement contained elements from the various socialist groups. But they did not dominate it. While they were part of this historic process few of the groups were really aware of the full extent and consequences of the threat to authority in which they were involved.
Many have seen (and still see) the relative absence of centralised and permanent structures in the struggles here described as signifying a lack of revolutionary consciousness amongst the people involved. In this the traditional left has totally misread the situation. They fail to recognise the libertarian, revolutionary face of the movement, seeing only its bureaucratic, institutionalised posterior. They in fact contribute to its dimensions, spending most of their time seeking to build various 'revolutionary vanguard' parties. For us, this page is turned. We can now begin to assess the mass autonomous movements of this century as an expression of the fundamental drive by ordinary men and women to dominate their own lives, to influence events, and to alter the course of history by themselves and for themselves.
Read more: http://prole.info/texts/mutinies.html