Breaking the Chains of Command

For centuries, working-class people have been sent to die in wars for empire. The rich history of soldier revolt isn’t just about foreign policy — it’s about breaking the power of the mighty in society as a whole.

On August 16, 1819, British soldiers charged a crowd at St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, during a meeting called in support of political reform. (Spencer Arnold Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

One of the protagonists of Mike Leigh’s 2018 film Peterloo is Joseph, a discharged soldier who joins the fight for the vote in early nineteenth-century England. Returning from the Battle of Waterloo, Joseph, son to a family of cotton mill workers, continues to wear his bright red uniform on the streets of his native Manchester.

The movement for democracy takes him to St Peter’s Field and the famous rally for parliamentary reform of August 16, 1819. Faced with a crowd numbering more than 60,000 people, the authorities treated their own subjects much as they had Napoleon’s forces at Waterloo, sending in the King’s Royal Hussars, a professional cavalry regiment, as well as the volunteer Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to impose order. The mounted troops charged the unarmed crowd and slaughtered eighteen peaceful demonstrators.

The army deployment at “Peterloo” fed a deep-rooted popular suspicion of the military. State practices such as “impressment” — forcing vagrants, then seamen, into the Navy — had long faced resistance, and the late 1750s saw large-scale riots in opposition to the Militia Acts, which established a lottery selecting working-age men for five-year terms as reservists (unless they could pay to avoid it). For its part, the regular army consisted of long-service recruits, cut off from the rest of the population and directed at colonial expansion rather than national defense, heightening the perception that they were but an alien force.

Especially drawn from the most destitute of His Majesty’s subjects — with an outsize Irish presence — the army was an instrument of royal might easily turned against the domestic population. Things were not always this way: during the Civil War of the 1640s, the parliamentarians’ New Model Army was itself a vector of democratic change thanks to the soldiers’ assemblies at Putney, debating a new constitution. Yet the restoration of the monarchy soon stamped out this tradition.

Across the Channel, the idea of republican defense made greater headway. After the French Revolution sparked open warfare between France and the main royalist powers in 1792, the Jacobins launched the so-called levée en masse, arming thousands to defend the endangered homeland. The first conscription bill came after the revolution’s initial dynamism had withered, but its propaganda identified military service with equal citizenship. Jacobin postcards even depicted a white and a black Frenchman, each with his rifle at the ready, bearing the legend “equality of ranks, equality of colors.”

The 1798 Jourdan-Delbrel law proclaimed “every Frenchman a soldier, owing himself to the nation’s defense”; introducing the bill, coauthor Jean-Baptiste Jourdan insisted that conscription would stop the army’s use as a repressive tool, since it would end any divide between “the civilian and military classes.” The “defenders of the homeland would be citizens,” and there would thus be “no reason for rivalry or distrust, no demarcation line between the people and its defenders.”

In theory, at least, republican defense would merge the French people and army. Yet in postrevolutionary decades it was the military that imposed its discipline on the population, rather than the other way around. Even the notion of collective republican duty was rather suspect because, as in England, the illicit practice of remplacement allowed wealthier conscripts to pay others to take their place. More important, the development of the Revolutionary Wars into a general French conquest of Europe saw military command extend across all public life, to the point that general Napoleon Bonaparte became consul and finally emperor, buttressed by a millions-strong army.

Having left behind its original purpose of defending the revolution from foreign attack, the onrush of Napoleon’s Grande Armée would drive rival powers like Prussia and Russia to develop their own forms of conscription. The development of the military administration in France moreover became an important instrument for making peasants into citizens, torn from their home villages and molded into citizen-subjects of bourgeois society.

The world bequeathed by the French Revolution was also the context in which the labor movement first emerged in Europe. For Karl Marx and his co-thinkers, the recent development of popular militarism was anathema to socialism — the mere fact of rallying the masses behind the state was not itself democratic, if their energies were channeled into national chauvinism.

Indeed, from its origins, the workers’ movement was keenly attentive to the question of how to counter the social power of aristocratic officers and prevent them from marshaling one section of the popular classes as an instrument of domination against the rest. At least up till the Second World War, social control of the military would remain a decisive strategic question for the Left in Europe, seeking not only to prevent international conflict or promote a general disarmament, but to weaken the militarist hold on domestic political life. Any party serious about wielding political power would necessarily impose democratic control over the army.

This poses important questions for today. If the Left remains mobilized by anti-imperialism and the wider foreign-policy dimensions of militarism, the domestic social power of the armed forces is overlooked. When Syriza came to power in Greece in January 2015, socialists internationally were enthused by the promise that Alexis Tsipras’s party could challenge the dogma that “there is no alternative” to neoliberalism. The fact that one of Tsipras’s first acts was to appoint as defense minister his hard-right coalition partner Panos Kammenos — thus guaranteeing that the new administration would do nothing to challenge the overweening armed forces — however, sparked little controversy, even after Syriza capitulated to the European Union on its economic agenda. This was a remarkable backward step from the Left’s traditional understanding that democratizing the army must be at the center of the assault on bourgeois institutions.

Beyond Disarmament

The first great episode that posed this problem came in 1871, with the emergence of what Marx called the world’s first working-class government, the Paris Commune. After Napoleon III’s France fell to Prussian-led forces in September 1870, the Third Republic, led by Adolphe Thiers, signed an armistice that forced the regular army to down its weapons. However, in Paris, the Garde Nationale militia refused to submit to the new military governor, and on March 18, 1871 it seized control of the capital.

The Garde Nationale armed the general population at the same time that it staged elections for a new Commune council, which enacted a thoroughgoing democratization of public life as well as tearing down symbols of French imperialism like Napoleon’s Vendôme Column. However, the Republic based at Versailles had within days begun to reorganize its own army, and by the start of April it began an armed offensive against Paris. Thiers’s forces soon overran the capital.

An ensuing bloodbath took twenty thousand lives, forced tens of thousands of revolutionaries into exile, and sparked harsh repression against the Left and the labor movement across the world. But what had been learned was the need to break the back of military power in society, replacing the standing army with a “people’s militia.” This demand, which was also inspired by the example of the American Revolution, figured in all late-nineteenth-century socialist manifestos (from the program of the Parti Ouvrier in France to German social democracy’s Erfurt Program) and sought to prevent the central state holding a monopoly of violence through which it could crush the population.

National guardsmen pose in front of an artillery barricade in the Place Vendome, during the civil war between the Third Republic and the Paris Commune, following the Franco-Prussian War. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The prominence of this discourse in the turn-of-the-century Second International is often overlooked, not least as this organization was itself destroyed in 1914 precisely by its member parties’ embrace of their own countries’ war efforts. Yet the debates that took place at the beginning of the twentieth century went beyond the terms of foreign policy and pacifism, instead questioning how the workers’ movement could impose effective barriers to militarism, including from within army ranks.

This issue was posed in the most concrete terms at the International’s 1907 Socialist Congress, held in Stuttgart. In a six-day debate on militarism, the leading French socialist, Jean Jaurès, advanced the sharpest call for international mobilization against war, insisting that the workers’ parties must take joint action “by every means available, from parliamentary intervention and public agitation to the general strike and the armed uprising.” Both the majority of his own party and the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) rejected this position. Not only did they see Jaurès’s language as incendiary, but they also maintained that if the ultimate cause of war lay in inter-imperialist competition, it was necessary to maintain the bases of national defense.

In the Reichstag, the SPD repeatedly opposed colonial spending, not least given its prominent spokesman August Bebel’s sharp denunciations of German atrocities in South West Africa. Although they were against such “offensive” missions, Bebel and his comrade Gustav Noske also insisted on Germany’s need for national defense. Noske told the party’s own 1907 Congress that the SPD were not “vagabonds without a fatherland,” but instead sought to interest the whole people in “a well-defended Germany.”

In subsequent years, even figures within the International who more robustly rejected militarism sharply disagreed over the relevance of disarmament. This was not because they backed national defense, but because they doubted the possibility of agreements between states to lower their arms stocks in an era of inter-imperialist competition. The leading popularizer of Marxism at the turn of the twentieth century, SPD theorist Karl Kautsky, upheld the disarmament slogan, insisting that anti-militarism ought not be treated in narrowly class terms but instead as an issue that could unite the workers’ movement with elements of bourgeois society. He insisted that inter-imperialist rivalry was becoming obsolete — there was a higher interest in cooperation among the main powers, based on the rational interests of an ever more integrated international bourgeoisie.

Other Marxists attacked this approach, and in particular Kautsky’s tendency to downplay both the reality of militarism and the lack of bourgeois forces materially committed to fighting it. This critique was voiced by Karl Radek, a leading light in the SPD and its Polish sister party, who emphasized the social power of the military and thus the need to divide it internally. He rejected Kautsky’s notion that the development of military technology, especially in the Navy, stood as an insuperable barrier to democratic control. Radek countered that, in the age of mass conscription, the people were already to be found within the ranks of the armed forces — the important thing was thus to drive wedges within this institution. While the military as a whole could never be won to socialism, workers’ parties should strengthen those elements within it that would “make it more difficult to enforce its function as an institution of class-domination internally and capitalist expansion externally.” To “strengthen the influence of the working class on the main organs of imperialism,” making use of the class’s growing numbers within army ranks, would undermine militarism’s social power from within and also prepare the ground for its ultimate destruction in a moment of social revolution.

Radek’s vision of democratization emphasized the need to break down the wall between the civilian population and the army, for instance through measures like abolishing long service periods. Yet his principal focus lay on agitating within and subverting bourgeois armies, rather than seeking to form a people’s army on the French revolutionary model.

Such a position was, however, prominent in the International. In 1900, Harry Quelch — editor of the Social Democratic Federation’s (SDF’s) Justice and a collaborator of Lenin during his stay in London — had published Social-Democracy and the Armed Nation. In a period in which the British state recruited Territorial Force (reservist) units as a complement to regular forces, thus freeing its hand to mass more expeditionary troops in South Africa and India, Quelch and his supporters instead fought for the creation of a purely defensive militia to replace the standing army. Attracting the ire of Territorial servicemen (who repeatedly attacked SDF meetings), Quelch and his comrades promoted the general arming of the population precisely in order to break the “worse than feudal powers” of the War Office.

Quelch’s argument was developed by his French counterpart Jaurès, whose influential 1910 book, The New Army, tried to adapt the Jacobin tradition to the modern era. His approach again focused on breaking down the division between the barracks and the civilian population, but it was proposed as a positive program for national defense, to be controlled by the ascendant labor movement. In particular, the French socialist specified that the professional standing army and its caste of officers should be replaced by a small cadre, chosen by trade unions and workers’ cooperatives, which would then instruct the wider population in military technique. At the same time, this bore a certain idea of integrating the trade unions into the state — Rosa Luxemburg sharply attacked Jaurès for his embrace of “national defense,” not least his insistence on the need to arm the population of the French regions bordering Germany.

Bebel, Quelch, and Jaurès all died in 1913–14, before their positions could be tested by the outbreak of World War I. In fact, it was the French socialist’s murder by a nationalist on July 31, 1914 that opened the way to his party’s embrace of the British–French war effort. With the outbreak of war in Europe, the dispute among socialists over the proper attitude toward the armed forces polarized between the positions of Noske — straightforwardly upholding that the working class stood with the nation in its hour of need — and those Radek had set out, in which the key battleground was not between nations but rather within the armed forces of each country.

The recruitment and then conscription of vast swathes of the working-age male population drew the workers’ parties’ own mass base into army ranks by the millions, but now they were controlled by the officers of their respective countries and often animated by powerful nationalist enthusiasms. For those socialists who stood firmly against the bloodbath, the task was to reject the whole logic of “national defense” in favor of the common interests among proletarians of all lands.

In 1914, these forces, represented by figures like Lenin, Luxemburg, and Radek were a tiny minority, subject to harsh repression in all belligerent countries. Yet their particular focus on soldiers’ power to undermine the war machine from within would soon prove its superiority over merely pacifist protests. Desertions from the front were a key factor in driving the February Revolution in Russia, and three months later the dissent spread to the Western Front, as a freshly failed French offensive sparked widespread mutinies.

After having already seen more than a million of their compatriots killed, tens of thousands of soldiers began to refuse to obey orders, in a revolt that spread across 49 of the 113 French infantry divisions. This was not, as such, an antiwar movement — soldiers refused orders to attack and raised such demands as more time away from the front and better conditions. French authorities soon succeeded in containing the revolt, putting thousands of their own troops on trial. Yet the unrest was spreading, even to the German side. On October 29, 1918, Kaiserliche Marine sailors abandoned their ships at Wilhelmshaven in a mutiny that spread to Kiel and then the rest of the country. Within days, Germany was forced to surrender.

Soldiers formed their own councils with their own demands, on the model of the soviets that had first emerged in the great industrial districts of the Russian Empire during the 1905 revolution and again in 1917. Standing at odds with military hierarchy, these bodies were expressions of the workers’ movement and combined with similar structures created by socialists in workplaces and territorial localities. However, seen as a whole, the breakdown of army command — the dumping onto the streets of millions of men as the states of central-eastern Europe collapsed — was far from simply a democratic development. Instead, the period of mass conscription, followed by a Europe-wide bloodbath and then the breakdown of the German and Austrian empires, created a time bomb under all subsequent efforts to build democratic societies.

The millions of men mobilized in World War I had been marshaled, brutalized, and turned into killers, and they could not simply be reinserted into society as if nothing had changed. Even on the victorious British–French side, they came back broken men, often to war-ravaged lands where they were unable to rebuild their lives.

The “solidarity of the trenches” produced by World War I was, in some cases, the unity of proletarians in uniform against their officers and states, and the rejection of the conditions to which they were subject. Especially in the victorious powers, this led to the creation of veterans’ associations hungering for justice and the delivery of a “land fit for heroes,” rewarding working-class participation in the war with better democratic rights and living conditions. Yet the brutalizing conditions and nationalist fervor produced another kind of reaction — the massification of the experience of war, and the creation of a population of millions, often still armed, resentful at the outcome of the conflict.

In the defeated powers of central-eastern Europe as well as in states left in chaos by the war, such as Italy, the veterans’ movement was overwhelmingly of the far right, seeking to impose military order on the population and direct blame for the outcome of the war against the Left and democracy in general, as well as “non-national” minorities. The violence of the inter-imperialist conflict now bore down on the wider civilian population of the Western democracies.

“Comrades in arms” now became a key social base of fascism, with irregular forces such as the German Freikorps and the Italian Arditi forming counterrevolutionary militias that fought to control the streets. These paramilitaries stood outside of formal army structures but were closely tied to elite interests and even achieved forms of official recognition. Drawing the fullest conclusions of the debate within German social democracy, in January 1919, the now–defense minister Gustav Noske authorized the Freikorps to suppress the communists and murder Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Organizations like Stahlhelm and the Nazi Sturmabteilung followed in a similar vein.

Republican soldiers undertaking a shooting exercise during the Spanish Civil War.(STF/AFP/Getty Images)

In Italy, the mounting climate of irregular violence met with the apathy of the Liberal government: a former socialist, defense minister Ivanoe Bonomi, banned communists from serving within the armed forces, but not Benito Mussolini’s fascists. The Partito Socialista Italiano signed a toothless “pacification pact” with the fascists, calling on all sides to down their weapons, leading only the Arditi del Popolo — an anarchist/republican-led force largely composed of disbanded soldiers — to mount a doomed resistance to fascism.

The rise of counterrevolutionary militias imposed a similar task on the Left in those countries where fascism was strongest. While in the pre–World War I period the call for people’s militias had been more a political demand than a practical realization, in the interwar years both mass military experience and the breakdown of the state monopoly on violence saw the emergence of party and party-front militias, from the German Communist Party’s Roter Frontkämpferbund (peaking at 130,000 members) to the Republikanischer Schutzbund (around 40,000), the paramilitary wing of Austrian Social Democracy, on the principle of armed self-defense.

The greatest mobilization was, however, the Spanish Civil War that broke out in 1936, where both the International Brigades and the different left-wing parties resisting General Francisco Franco’s coup built their own regiments, often based on democratic notions like electing officers. However, as Franco’s Nationalist forces advanced, backed by Italian and German planes and tanks, the regular army asserted its control over the militias. Both a widely accepted need for professionalization and the discipline exerted by the Republic’s Soviet ally affirmed the creation of a more conventional army command.

Caviar Tins for Grenades

After 1918, millions of soldiers had polarized between revolutionary aspirations and the forces of counterrevolution, forming the base of trained men that would be able to instruct and lead paramilitary forces. Party militias were not the work of dreamers who fancied their chances of armed insurrection, but a layer of militants who had recent experience of frontline combat or national service.

The Spanish war had brought into relief the gulf in military capacity between those forces that did and didn’t enjoy the support of tanks and planes — hardly the stuff of party militias. At the same time, the international scenario was changing the stakes of military matters. The mounting conflict between Nazi Germany and the USSR — and, in particular, the latter’s efforts to build a coalition including the major Western powers — radically altered the terms of left-wing discussion of the military and defense policy.

After World War I, the communist parties had been founded on the perspective of imminent revolution spreading from Russia across Europe. Here, attacks on the social democrats’ embrace of “national defense” went hand in hand with the en bloc rejection of a crumbling bourgeois society, which the reformists were accused of buttressing. Yet the failure of the revolution to spread — and, instead, the rise of far-right paramilitary forces, ultimately integrated into new authoritarian regimes and their armies — imposed a change of perspective. After the 1933 Nazi victory, the communist parties rapidly reoriented toward the so-called Popular Front policy, based on the alliance of all forces willing to fight Hitlerism. Faced with an existential threat to the USSR and the wider workers’ movement, this approach sought not to overthrow the bourgeois democracies but rather to force them to fight fascism more effectively, including by rooting out fascist influence within their institutions.

In the Popular Front period, communists everywhere became the sharpest opponents of “appeasement,” favoring what they labeled a democratic, anti-fascist vision of national defense. In the context of the late 1930s, pacifist movements driven by the horrors of the last war risked demobilizing the democracies against fascism — and for the communist parties, the fight “against war and imperialism” was now to be fought on the terrain of collective security.

In 1934, the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations, seeking no longer simply to divide the imperialist countries, but rather to build a coalition that could effectively deter Hitler. At the level of national politics, this was concretized in France in 1936 in the Front Populaire — an electoral coalition united by its antifascism that won 57 percent of the vote in that May’s contest. A coalition of socialists and radicals supported by the French Communist Party (PCF), the Front Populaire government began rearmament, disarmed the fascist ligues, and nationalized the weapons industry, though it disappointed PCF hopes of direct intervention to defend the Spanish Republic.

This Popular Front approach was allied with efforts to break the elite stranglehold on the armed forces. In France, PCF leader Maurice Thorez invoked the spirit of Jaurès, insisting that his comrades would be in the front rank of national defense against Nazi Germany.

Across the Channel, the British communist Tom Wintringham — a veteran of a mutiny at the end of World War I who had become commander of the Tom Mann Centuria in Spain —became a leading commentator on military technique and defense precautions. He could, in the same breath, write a history of mutinies and write a popular book on the need for the “doubling” of the Royal Air Force. Denouncing the aristocratic culture of the armed forces and their backwardness in getting to grips with new forms of warfare like guerrilla fighting and anti-tank measures, in April 1939, Wintringham published How to Reform the Army, in which he set out his ideas for democratizing the armed forces as well as improving their combat readiness in the face of German invasion.

The communist parties’ republican patriotism was driven by antifascism, but it also depended on the USSR’s contingent foreign policy interests. After years in which Britain and France refused any initiative to form a common front against Hitler — instead granting him territorial concessions in Central Europe in the name of “appeasement” — in August 1939, Stalin made his own non-aggression pact with Berlin. This could, in theory, have granted the USSR more time to prepare its defenses against an inevitable war (time that was not best used). But its immediate effect was to grant Hitler a free hand to invade Poland. When Britain and France did declare war on Germany, the communist parties considerably watered down their previous anti-Nazi stance, instead one-sidedly calling for “peace.” Thorez was himself mobilized to the front, but after understanding that Moscow meant for the PCF, too, to denounce the Allies as mere “imperialists,” he abandoned his post; his counterpart in London, Harry Pollitt, who welcomed Britain’s declaration of war, was toppled from the Communist Party (CPGB) leadership. He would return only in June 1941 when the Nazi invasion of the USSR brought a fresh reversal in the party line.

These about-faces did not entirely eradicate what had gone before: even prominent PCF cadres began resistance efforts during the first months of German occupation, and in CPGB ranks, Wintringham was constant in his own efforts to prepare for a similar situation in Britain. Banned from enlisting as an officer in the regular army due to his communist politics, in June 1940, he set up a private training school at Osterley Park, near Heathrow. Wintringham’s school, opened thanks to the largesse of the Earl of Jersey, aimed at both resisting a Nazi invasion and preparing for an underground resistance in the case of occupation. In its first four months, it trained around five thousand men in guerrilla warfare. These efforts met with the close scrutiny of the Imperial General Staff, which drew on Wintringham’s experience while also seeking to ostracize him personally because of his political views.

This was concretized in the formation of the Home Guard — Britain’s wartime reserve defense force, which both conducted antiaircraft operations and prepared for invasion. Wintringham had proven himself as something of an expert in military technique, and his plans were used not only by the Home Guard but also by the army reservists in besieged Leningrad (today’s St Petersburg). Noting the adoption of his methods in the very city where the October Revolution had been launched, the British communist could contentedly note the difference that “these [Russian] proletarians use caviar tins instead of cocoa tins” for grenades.

Tom Wintringham and members of the Dorking Home Guard, inspecting a cheaply produced mortar cannon, July 1941. (Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The German onslaught, however, also demanded a rather larger-scale response. In the early phase of the war, rapid victories for Wehrmacht blitzkrieg heightened the sense that Europe’s traditional ruling classes were unprepared or simply unwilling to prosecute the war effectively. Though France’s government had banned the Communist Party because of its support for the Hitler–Stalin pact, the political-military elite itself took almost no action against Nazi Germany in the first months of the war and then rapidly folded in the face of the invasion.

In Britain, in July 1940, the popular book Guilty Men — coauthored by future Labour Party leader Michael Foot, a Tory mp, and a Liberal — cast a withering gaze at the ruling class’s failure to prepare for the war, projecting eternal shame on the idea of “appeasement.” Later in the war, when the Italian monarchy finally broke with Benito Mussolini in July 1943, and reached an armistice with Churchill and Roosevelt, it failed to organize any defenses against a German counterblow, and when the Wehrmacht invaded on September 8, the King and the new prime minister abandoned the capital, leaving no orders as demobilized soldiers and civilians mounted a desperate and disorganized resistance.

In each case, the ruling class’s unwillingness to confront Nazi Germany allowed for the Left to assert its own claim to stand more squarely for national defense, which could now be associated with antifascism as well as a certain “popular” character. In particular, in the countries of occupied Europe ruled by Nazi-collaborationist regimes, the communists and other left-wing parties everywhere played a leading role in the underground partisan movements, while in both Britain and the United States, they backed intervention to create a “second front” in Western Europe to aid the Soviet Union’s own defensive war in the East.

Figures like Winston Churchill — no doubt an intransigent defender of British imperial interest against Nazi Germany — chafed at partisan forces like Greece’s communist-led People’s Liberation Army (ELAS), which he dismissed as “Wintringham’s men.” If the British communist had called for the formation of a one hundred thousand–strong force of antifascist battalions to complement the regular army, this was realized not in Britain but in countries like France and Italy, where the irregular partisans flanked the Free French and Royal Army respectively.

Within the Ranks

The war mobilization lay the bases for broad social change. Even in an unoccupied country like the United States, 1941–45 brought the mass enlistment of women in war industries and the beginning of the end of racial segregation in a US army in which Southern officers had long remained overrepresented. As for Europe, only in Yugoslavia and Albania did the partisans directly take power, but in other centers of resistance, such as Italy and France, the anti-fascist struggle lifted the communists into coalition governments, together with reformist socialists as well as Christian Democrats and Gaullists. Massively strengthened by the partisan mobilization, in each case, the communists laid claim to a central role in national life, their robust patriotism going some way to erase memories of both their early radicalism and their reticence to criticize Stalin’s pact with Hitler.

The French and Italian communists had urged the need for popular participation in the resistance in order to ensure a “democratic” outcome to the war, stopping the Western Allies from simply restoring traditional elites to power. This was a special risk in the military, where both countries’ high commands were dominated by colonial personnel. However, the military muscle was all with the Anglo-Americans, and in Greece — where the communists did risk a more direct confrontation with British-backed elites — Churchill bloodily suppressed “Wintringham’s men” as soon as the war was over. Their Italian and French confreres would not suffer similar bloodshed, but the intensified superpower rivalry did heavily restrict the change they could achieve, including within army ranks.

In June 1946, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) leader Palmiro Togliatti had, as justice minister, issued a general amnesty for war-era crimes in the name of pacifying social tensions. Yet within a year, his party, like France’s PCF, had been kicked out of government, and its own members were systematically purged from the police and the military. As Europe moved into the Cold War, former fascists remained, while communists were excluded from new security forces.

Faced with the rise of NATO, the communist parties again picked up the banner of “national independence” and “peace.” The main enemy of the United States was now the Soviet Union, and any outright conflict would risk nuclear destruction. However, this did not mean that their policy was straightforwardly pacifist — indeed, it was prominently directed at the democratization of the armed forces, casting more light on shadowy intelligence forces while also ensuring a greater popular participation in the army.

Typical of this was the PCI’s support for conscription, continuing an old republican tradition. Rather than leave the army up to a caste of professionals, indeed directed by monarchists who had been happy to serve Mussolini, the communists instead asserted the need for an army more representative of the wider population, and from which no democrat should be excluded on political grounds. It similarly insisted that conscript troops should be represented in military parades, and that the royalist and fascist-era symbolism still used by certain regular units should be removed.

An earlier Leninism would continue to serve as an example for the radical left, more minded to draw on World War I–era subversive tactics than to seek “democratic” reforms on the model of the mainstream communist parties. This was epitomized by such forces as Proletari in Divisa. A soldiers’ movement linked to the extra-parliamentary group Lotta Continua, which agitated within barracks and, as the name suggested, sought to mobilize “proletarians in uniform.” Inspired by the GI revolt in Vietnam, its members participated in all manner of demonstrations wearing their military colors.

Equally, in France — where, during May 1968, conscripts in their barracks were cut off from letters, radio, and TV during the general strike, as General de Gaulle mooted a “military solution” to the unrest — sporadic soldiers’ committees were formed, issuing communiqués in solidarity with the students’ and workers’ movements. This also laid the basis of a more enduring platform of soldier demands promoted in subsequent years by the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) union, with shorter periods of national service to be fulfilled at a time of recruits’ own choice as well as a lifting of all limits on free communications.

Soldiers Into Citizens

For these militants, as for the turn-of-the-century Marxists, the task was to break down the hierarchy by which militarists and champions of empire could rally the masses under their command. The fight to break their monopoly of violence was, at the same time, the fight to democratize society itself: it could both undercut the means by which militarist elites projected their hold over the collective imaginary and prevent the use of a standing army as a tool of domestic repression. As the British socialist Harry Quelch had put it back in 1900, “To the champions of a corrupt militarism, and to the advocates of the noble, if at present impracticable, policy of universal disarmament alike we reply: Peace the ruling classes at present make impossible. Let us, therefore, all be armed, let us all be soldiers, but let us also all be citizens.”

Quelch’s arguments for arming the population did not come from a vacuum: they were a response to an existing trend toward conscription, as generals and spokesmen for imperialist interest sought to rally the population behind the regular army. Quelch’s arguments sought to subvert this objective tendency toward arming the masses, by counterposing it to the continued existence of professional soldiers. Yet in today’s context — where most Western countries have abolished conscription or national service, and rather fewer of us share our grandparents’ fears of military invasion — the distribution of weapons less clearly appears as a “democratic” or progressive measure.

Equally, in an era in which the labor movement has less hold on the collective imaginary, the existing armed forces today seem less porous to democratic ideas like those of Jean Jaurès and Tom Wintringham, never mind the mutinous spirit of 1918. Individual whistleblowers and refuseniks lift the lid on malpractice and rebel against the chain of command, yet no longer is this a clearly collective phenomenon.

Antiwar protesters, many of them veterans of the Vietnam War, stage “guerrilla theater” on Capitol Hill in 1970. (Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Getty Images)

Has the fight to rein in militarism been lost? Certainly, the people are no longer “within the army” in the sense that Radek meant, and military technology is controlled by ever fewer people.

Yet what remains relevant in the Marxist tradition is the idea that pacifism alone is not enough to confront military power, and that allies are also to be found within the ranks. Whether through whistleblowing, soldier revolt, or the spotlight of scrutiny from the outside, it is possible to undermine officers’ claims to be the unchallenged experts on military affairs and give voice to the discontent that rages even within a supposedly monolithic, patriotic institution. This is, decisively, a matter of undermining the veneer of “expertise” that covers the drive to war — blowing the lid on the private interests and the intrigue used to justify all manner of “humanitarian interventions,” “police actions,” and “security measures.” But it’s also about combatting the broader principle of top-down control — the widespread conviction that some people are here to give orders and everyone else to obediently execute commands. Now, as ever, the effort to subvert the military command isn’t just about war and foreign policy: it’s about getting rid of the generals in our heads.