A History of Mutiny

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Award-winning historian Neil Davidson considers the precedents for army disaffection and revolt.

The crime for which George Galloway was expelled from the Labour Party was appealing to British soldiers not to carry out illegal orders during the invasion of Iraq. Since the invasion was itself an illegal act, Galloway was effectively committing the offence which the ruling class refer to as 'incitement to mutiny'. This may explain some of the hatred with which they have responded to his election.

In the end, all revolutions succeed or fail depending on whether they have been able to break the military power of the existing state. Generalised violence against the mass of the population is not, of course, the preferred method of bourgeois rule, since regimes that depend mainly on repression to maintain themselves in power tend to be unstable and insecure. But in a crisis, when the very existence of the system seems under threat, the military will always be the final barrier against the working class and its allies.

We are not yet in a revolutionary situation, alas, but any weakening of the command structure, such as implied by Galloway's eminently moderate invitation for the troops to obey international law rather than criminal orders, threatens to weaken the final bulwark upon which our rulers depend. The one thing armed forces are not supposed to do is think, at least in other than instrumental ways; part of the otherwise incomprehensible nature of military discipline is precisely to instil obedience to orders, no matter how pointless, illogical or perverse. The Victorian Poet Laureate Tennyson spoke more truthfully than he perhaps intended when he wrote of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava, 'Theirs not to reason why...'

Refusal to obey orders or, even worse, to establish an alternative source of command, everywhere carries the most severe of penalties, including - as in the British army until 1998 - death. Mutiny is therefore a serious business, and not one which members of the armed forces of any country undertake lightly. In general, it occurs only when they are either supremely confident or extremely desperate. For this reason, the question of how sections of the armed forces have, in the past, abandoned their posts, or even changed sides, is of considerable interest to socialists. The subject is vast, and this article can only touch on main issues and try to draw broad conclusions for the present.

The earliest mutinies with any social significance occurred during the transition to capitalism. Feudal armies were not permanent institutions, but temporary assemblies put together by the crown for specific objectives. They consisted of the king's vassals (barons, knights, etc), their retainers and usually their tenants. In this sense, the whole of society was militarised. The rise of the absolutist state, from around the mid-15th century, saw the growth of larger armies and the necessity for soldiers to be trained to a much higher level of technical competence than hitherto in the effective use of the new technologies of artillery and musketry - the so called 'Military Revolution'.

But the absolutists were opposed to the mass training or recruiting of their own subjects, for fairly obvious reasons. Soldiers therefore tended to be mercenaries, preferably from outside the regal domains altogether - as in the role played by Swiss mercenaries for the French monarchy - but certainly from outside the areas where war was being waged. For this reason there were very few mutinies in early modern Europe. During the first successful bourgeois revolution, the Dutch Revolt against Hapsburg Spain (1567-1609), 'Spanish' troops mutinied, but over their pay and conditions, and not from any sympathy with their opponents or desire to overthrow the dynasty.

The New Model Army

The first serious mutiny took place during the English Revolution, but it was a mutiny within the revolutionary forces, not those of the Stuart state. By 1647 the soldiers of the New Model Army had several grievances, including opposition to being sent to Ireland to suppress the Catholic rebellion and resentment at not receiving their arrears of pay. The situation produced several innovations. Within the New Model Army itself rank and file soldiers elected representatives ('agents' or 'agitators') and came under the influence of the first real political organisation in modern history, the Levellers.

The demands of the men quickly generalised from their immediate concerns to the broader issue of who should have the franchise. Indeed, it was difficult for them to ignore the contrast between their ability to elect representatives within their own ranks, and the way they were prevented from doing so in the wider society they were sworn to defend. The actual rebellion followed on from the inconclusive outcome to the famous Putney Debates, but was easily overcome by a combination of (actually quite limited) repression and successful appeals to the loyalty of the troops in the face of Charles's attempt to restart the civil war. The significance of this episode is that it was essentially a dispute over the extent of democracy in the post-revolutionary state, in which the more consistent democrats lost.

The New Model Army was an ideologically committed army, with a membership drawn from a relatively homogenous social group of independent farmers and small producers. The British bourgeoisie had no intention of allowing such body, or a standing army of any sort, to be recreated. Nevertheless, for the century between the consolidation of the English Revolution in 1688 and the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, the British army had several differences from most of those in continental Europe. It no longer relied on mercenaries, but on an army raised from volunteers and supplemented by men forced into service or 'pressed' - although the latter phenomenon was considerably more important in the navy. Men enlisted for economic reasons, and nowhere in the 18th century was this truer than the Highlands of Scotland. This was a society in crisis even before the Battle of Culloden in 1746, and it entered a period of total disintegration shortly afterwards.

One effect of this was massive levels of recruitment to the British army. The regiments were often composed of men from the same estates. They received agreement that they would be allowed to retain their local regimental identities and not be sent outside the British Isles. Both promises were regularly broken, with the result that there were at least 16 serious mutinies by Scottish Highland regiments between 1743 and 1804. There is, however, little conclusive evidence that these mutinies were inspired by the great social upheavals that took place during these years. Indeed, the Highland regiments were in the vanguard of the counter-revolutionary onslaught against the American and French Revolutions.

Far more significant were the naval mutinies at Spithead and the Nore in 1797, since the British state relied on the navy for protection to a far greater extent than it did on the army. Here we encounter for the first time, not just opposition to bad conditions, but a possible political direction which is opposed to the existing state. The extent to which political influence of Jacobin radicalism influenced the sailors is still widely disputed by historians, but it is surely significant that the fleet contained several thousand Irishmen, given the proximity of the mutiny to the revolt of the United Irishmen the following year. The notion of going on strike - meaning here the 'striking' or lowering of sails - may actually originate in these events.

What changed the political significance of mutinies was, from the middle of the 19th century, the introduction of conscription - that is, of the systematic, compulsory enlistment of men of a certain age who met certain (initially relatively low) physical standards. This coincided with the consolidation of capitalism in Western and Central Europe and North America. Some states, like Imperial Germany, theoretically insisted on a period of military service for all males. Other states only used conscription in actual war situations, as did both sides in the American Civil War. It was mass involvement in the civil war that produced the understandably bitter phrase, 'It's a rich man's war but a poor man's fight', although of all wars fought by capitalist states the North's cause is historically one of the most justifiable. Initially Britain avoided conscription precisely because of its reliance on the navy.

Outside of the Balkans, Europe was at peace between the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the start of the First World War in 1914. In other words, the latter event was the first major war to have taken place since the completion of the bourgeois revolution in the main European states. Conscription was universal between 1914 and 1918 and it was during this great imperial slaughter that the first explicit connection was made between the struggle for socialism and the revolt in the armed forces. (There is a precursor in the 1905 revolt of the Kronstadt sailors which was one of the opening episodes of the 1905 Russian Revolution.)

Two elements were necessary for these connections to be made. The first was that socialists who were called up did not try to evade the process by going on the run or pleading conscientious objection, but that they 'went with their class', as the saying had it. This was important, because when the massed armies and navies of the combatants began finally to crack under the unrelenting pressure of the slaughter and deprivation, there were socialists alongside them who could try to explain their situation and what could be done about it. Second, mutinies either in the field or at the rear took place in the context of a rising movement in both workplaces and communities against, not just the war, but also the system that had produced it. These two conditions varied from country to country, and so, consequently, did the extent of the revolt in the armed forces. In no case did the latter rise above the level of consciousness or struggle that had been displayed by the working class of that country as a whole.

Essentially, the army and navy mutinies varied in significance depending on whether or not the country involved was suffering defeat, with all the heightened social pressures that involved. The Russian Revolution of 1917, as Trotsky pointed out, was a combination of a peasant uprising for land and a working class uprising for socialism. Below the officer corps the Tsarist army consisted of members of both classes and so their rebellion - which in many places simply involved mass desertion-linked the two great revolutionary classes and effectively broke the ability of the Tsarist regime to resist.

In Germany a revolt by sailors at Kiel, in opposition to a suicidal attempt to engage the British fleet, effectively began the revolution of 1918. On the Allied side, however, the role of mutinies played a less significant role, which reflected the fact that the revolutionary wave itself was weaker in Britain, France and the US than in Central and Eastern Europe. At the end of the war these were mainly about the speed and equity of demobilisation, although at least one important naval mutiny, by the French Fleet in the Black Sea, was directed against intervention against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War.

Mutinies played a generally far smaller role in the revolutionary movements at the end of the Second World War. Discipline did not break down among the Axis Powers. In Germany, unlike in the First World War, the Wehrmacht fought on to the end. In part this is because of the savage reprisals which deserters could expect - the ruling class was famously obsessed with avoiding the collapse of 1918 - but also because of fear of what the advancing Russian armies would do in retaliation for the atrocities committed by German troops in the east. This could have been mitigated had the advancing Russians taken an internationalist attitude, but in fact Stalinist propaganda throughout Europe was conducted solely on a nationalist basis that blamed the entire German people for Hitler (eg, 'Let every man kill his own Boche!').

In the case of the Allies, such mutinies that did occur were again principally concerned with demobilisation. This was certainly the case with the British army in Egypt, although revolutionaries, including Trotskyists like Duncan Hallas, were involved. There seem to be two main reasons. On the one hand, most politically conscious soldiers saw the Second World War, to some extent, as one against fascism, and not simply an inter-imperialist conflict like the First. They were therefore less willing to take action which might hinder its prosecution, however justified. On the other, there was no revolutionary movement in Britain and the US at the end of the Second World War, although there was a strong leftist and reformist mood, and in the US a very large strike movement. But soldiers were interested in returning home to take part in the new world they thought was opening up for them, not in overthrowing the state of which they were a part. The main exceptions, and they were very important indeed, occurred in the colonies. Events such as the mutiny of the Indian Fleet in 1946 were clearly part of the opening rounds of the struggle for liberation in Asia. (The hostility of both Congress and the Communist Party to the mutineers is also indicative of the betrayals that were to follow.)

The revolt of the GIs

The final episode I want to discuss, which in a sense still casts its shadow over all succeeding events, is the American experience in Vietnam. This subject has been discussed with great clarity and sensitivity by Jonathan Neale in The American War, but some brief observations can be made here.

First, by the time of the war in Vietnam the class experience of the army had come to represent the class and racial structure of society to a far greater degree than previously. In the Second and - especially - the First World Wars the level of casualties among the officer class was, in relative terms, extremely high, something which they were increasingly determined to avoid. On the other side, however, black participation in the fighting was far more extensive - there had been black troops in the world wars, of course, but they were often restricted to non-combatant roles at the rear. This was now reversed. It was the American working class who died in the jungles of Vietnam.

The revolt of the GIs was different from those of the world wars, in that it did not take the form of a classical collective refusal to serve. On the one hand it saw an intense degree of politicisation, including the production of regular anti-war, or at least anti-army, bulletins and newspapers. On the other, it saw a drugged withdrawal from active service. At its most extreme, it involved a guerrilla strategy of selectively assassinating particularly gung-ho or oppressive officers through the use of fragmentation bombs ('fragging').

In the end, large sections of the US combat forces in Vietnam were simply unreliable for one reason or another, and this was recognised by the more intelligent sections of the officer corps. Colin Powell was among those who suggested to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that it might not be entirely sensible to send black US troops to oppose the black nationalist movement, the MPLA, which was on the verge of power in Angola during 1976. There is at least a case for arguing that, uncharacteristic though it was, this was the most effective mutiny in military history.

What had happened? Essentially two things. In the battlefield was an enemy whose increasingly successful struggle against superior force and technology had belied US propaganda claims about their supposed minority status among the population. At home a mass movement that involved the friends and relatives of the troops acted to remove the usual sense of isolation that troops beginning to doubt their role usually feel.

The precise circumstances of Vietnam are unlikely ever to be repeated, even in Iraq, but several elements are still in place. The fact that conscription has largely been abandoned by the imperialist powers (except where they are colonial-settler regimes like Israel) does not mean that mutinies are no longer likely to occur. Apart from any other consideration, no formally democratic government is likely to dare to reintroduce conscription, which is a victory of sorts. But the majority of private soldiers and naval ratings still come from the working class (the class basis of the air force tends to be slightly different) - and often from the poorest and worst educated sections of the working class at that, as the role of Lynndie England in the Abu Ghraib atrocities has demonstrated. To say in advance that this layer of people cannot be won to socialist politics is effectively to write off whole sections of the working class.

This does not mean that troops will automatically achieve class consciousness, but this is also true of working class people in civilian life. What makes the situation of those in the army more difficult is the sheer level of indoctrination which they receive and the sheer isolation from their background. Indeed, the incredibly high levels of suicide and mental illness among ex-soldiers are partly explained by the removal of the 'world' to which they have become accustomed in the ranks.

On the other hand because - unlike the police - the army is far less likely to be used regularly against the home population, there are greater opportunities to connect the intense class divisions within the armed forces with those in the outside world. The prospect of what used to be called 'disaffection in the ranks' escalating to the point of refusal to fight, let alone any further action, is likely to be enhanced by three factors.

The first is division within the ruling class, including the chiefs of staff themselves. Where the leaders are divided on tactical questions - and they are of course unlikely to question the fundamental political or moral positions of their class - it can produce a situation of institutional paralysis that reduces to some extent the risks involved in disobedience.

The second is resistance on the ground against invasion and occupation. Without this ruling classes would rarely question the correctness of their strategy, let alone split over the issue. But it also true that without the prospect of stand-off or defeat a large enough number of troops are unlikely to question their role - even if only from the point of view of self-preservation. But without one final factor, the effect of battlefield violence, death and the loss of comrades is just as likely to turn to blind hatred towards the enemy as to a refusal to fight.

That final factor is an active mass movement 'at home' articulating reasons for opposing the war and supporting those in the armed forces who do so. Only this factor, the creation of the mass movement, is within the power of socialists to build, although the more we build it the more likely divisions are to appear within the ruling class. A movement like the Stop the War Coalition can give potential dissidents in the forces the confidence to refuse orders. In this context, the importance of developments like Military Families Against the War cannot be underestimated, and it is important to understand just how rare it has been for this to happen during a war. Although the stories about returning GIs being spat on by protesters during the Vietnam War are mainly lies, it is vital that the movement continues to emphasise that it does not see individual soldiers as the enemy, and that we, rather than the politicians and generals ordering them to their deaths, are their true allies.