Monday, 27 January 2020

Esther Leslie on Revolutionary History: Mutiny (2002)

Revolutionary History: Mutiny
Written By: Esther Leslie
Date: January 2002
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 14: Lent 2002 

The latest issue of Revolutionary History is devoted to the themes of mutiny and dissent in the armed forces. It encompasses the military writings of Engels and later Marxists as well as reflections on the social composition and technological character of the contemporary military. A selection of previously unpublished archive materials, interviews and analytical essays focus on a number of mutinies across the 20th century: the Potemkin mutiny in Russia in 1905, the mutinies across Europe during the First World War, mutiny in India in 1919, and mutinies and political agitation in the British army in Egypt at the close of the Second World War. There are also documents and articles relating to propaganda work on the part the part of communists in the army. Annotated bibliographies also provide many suggestions for further reading.

Socialists have written much about the necessary connections between capitalism and war. In the writings of Marx and Engels, war and military technique provide a point of fascination: through analysis of military conquest Marx and Engels gauge political and economic progress and reaction. As materialists they were not squeamish about the role of violence and force in history. Engels, known to his friends as “the General”, even put the military training of his youth to practical use, participating in armed uprisings against the Prussian armies. Marx and Engels were not involved in the formation of anti-war movements as such. That development was reserved for the few 20th century socialists who, in 1914, galvanise opposition to the nationalistic bloodfest. Karl Radek was one isolated socialist voice, writing journal articles in 1914 such as “Marxism and the Problems of War” and “Why Should We Bleed?” – to which the resounding answer is “for capitalist interests”. Socialist opposition to this warmongering is a response to a number of changes: the objectively reactionary role of the bourgeoisie, once victorious and in imperialist pursuit of world-wide profits, the changing technological modes of warfare (which multiple the slaughter and shift it from the battlezone into civilian arenas) and the new mass mobilisation of men into armies. Modern total war expends vast resources of energy and humanity. In My Life, Trotsky pinpoints the contradictions of the capitalist push to war: "It was as if a man, to prove that his pipes for breathing and swallowing were in order, had begun to cut his throat with a razor in front of a mirror."

The call to dissent put out by Karl Radek, Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and others was not heard on the front until the war was in its advanced stages. For example, in 1917, soldiers mutiny in France at Etaples, in protest at the harsh conditions in the camp. That same year, Russian soldiers stationed in France stage a mutiny on hearing word of revolutionary changes at home. A rapidly developing political consciousness can be gauged by reading their letters home. As war grinds on, mutinies begin to afflict the European forces on a wide scale. Mutinies may be conspired into existence by activists, or they may be spontaneous. They may express a high level of class-consciousness and definite political demands – or they may appear to be more chaotic, a breakdown of the chain of command. But even the temporary breakdown of such a key command chain has potentially great implications. Any mutiny can be a flashpoint of revolution, as Lenin realised after the mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin in 1905 - troops can be won over to join the workers in overthrowing the old order, and if that occurs the ruling class is fully exposed, with no-one to defend it.
Many mutinies at the end of the First World War were class-conscious acts, demanding democracy and respect for the lower ranks. This should not surprise, given the class composition of military forces and the hierarchical structure, especially in navies, where ships are like micro-versions of the wider class society but concentrated in a small space. Christian Rakovsky describes this graphically in relation to the Tsarist Black Sea fleet, and in particular the Battleship Potemkin, whose brutal regime is depicted in the famous “rotting meat” scene of Eisenstein's 1925 film of the mutiny. The mutinies at the close of the First World War are sometimes expressions of the longing to return home after years of fighting, and sometimes more “politically” motivated, inspired into existence by revolutionary change elsewhere. The mutinies at the end of the war are most dramatic in those countries where certain military defeat looms. Notably it is as a result of mutiny that the war effort is abandoned and, moreover, post-imperial republics are established. Mutinies can be the testing ground for new forms of self-government are developed - the council form in Germany or the Cairo Parliament of 1943-4. Some mutinies express solidarity with proletarian revolt in other countries - as in the Black Sea Revolts of 1919, vividly described by participants, Marcel Monribot, Charles Tillon and Virgile Vuillemin, who testify to the sailors' internationalist sentiments. While some mutinies are less consequential, simply demanding demobilisation once war has finished, it should be noted that the demand for demobilisation can lead to quite weighty repercussions (and desperate machinations on the part of the rulers), as was the case in India in 1919, or in the 1940s in Egypt.

Of immediate, rather than historical, interest is whether widespread “political” mutiny is still a possibility in today's hi-tech professional armies of Europe and the USA (where mutiny – or the "fragging" of officers – was last experienced during the Vietnam war). Or is mutiny reserved for the underequipped and overwhelmed armed forces in faraway countries facing the might of NATO in today's new perma-war adventures. A study of mutinies in the past might help to answer this question and also inspire those critical of war today by uncovering a rich tradition of dissidence, even in the face of the most powerful forces.

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