Ernest Belfort Bax

Discipline and Indiscipline

(16 April 1892)

Discipline and Indiscipline, Justice, 16th April 1892, p.2.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“Military discipline” is a thing which has become a “sine qua non” of the art of war ever since armies began to partake of the nature of capitalistic undertakings and to develop into vast animated machines under the control of a few directors. In the middle ages, each warrior counted as an independent and self-determining factor in the fight. The functions of the captain were strictly limited and could not infringe the liberty of the individual soldier against his will – least of all when not actually engaged in the field. The soldier now is merely an infinitesimal atom of the mechanism, and the whole endeavour of modern military training is to teach him to regard himself as such. His individuality is as completely effaced as that of the convict at the galleys.

A machine, if it is a good one, must obey to a nicety the will of the operator, and the army-machine must be worked on the mechanical principles common to all machines. This necessitates that each soldier should be trained to cringe abjectly before the officer immediately above him. Such is modern “military discipline,” and its results we see in the recent exposures respecting the treatment of soldiers in the German army. The cartoon in a recent number of Kladderadatsch, which .represented a prostrate soldier cleaning his officer’s boots with his tongue, may be taken as a typical and not an exaggerated illustration of the treatment accorded the sons of the “Vaterland” . Many indeed of the barbarities committed there are of such a nature as not to bear publication even in the outspoken columns of Justice.

It must never be forgotten that this is no voluntary system of service like that of the English Army, but that all are compelled to pass through three years of this “hell” who have not been in a position to receive sufficient education, to claim the right of only. serving one year. Of course it is said that these cruelties are perpetrated without the sanction and against the will of those highest in command, that the latter are as anxious as any could be to reform abuses, &c. This is all nonsense. That any brutality is condoned rather than allow the smallest appearance of a relaxation of discipline is sufficiently shown, if by nothing else, by the promotion of a ruffianly sentry in Berlin the other day for killing a civilian who jeered at him. He was promoted because his action, though murder in itself, was in strict accordance with military rule, The seat of the disease lies not in the irresponsible irregularities of subordinate officers, but in the system of military discipline itself. To destroy the disease you must destroy military discipline:

The possibility of destroying military discipline rests with the armed proletariat, which constitutes the bulk of the European military forces at the present time. Should the much talked-of European war be delayed a few years so as to give time for the proletariat to awaken to a true consciousness of its position, we may possibly, when it does come, see something of the following nature. Two hostile divisions, say, a French and a German, may encounter one another in accordance with a plan of military tactics carefully thought out at staff- headquarters, the order may be given to charge, when to the consternation of the officers of all grades, instead of the expected attack and heroic slaughter for the honour of king or country, arms will be reversed and each side will embrace the enemies of its “Vaterland” or its “Patrie.” The officers on both sides may then be taken prisoners and may perhaps receive at the hands of their own men such ignominious chastisement as would deter them from ever again facing them. From that day military discipline will be doomed.

It may be very brutal, but the last holders of positions of authority under, the present system will undoubtedly have to pay the penalty in their own persons pretty severely for holding those positions. In such a case it will be of no use for the victim to whine that he is only “doing his duty,” that he is “fulfilling the functions of his office,” or some such flap-doodle. There is, we repeat little doubt that before the complete transformation of society takes place, many persons holding posts of responsible authority under the present constitution of things will – “pour encourager lea autres” – have to pay through their skins for exercising that authority. The object of the revolutionist in such a case will not be to inflict pain upon a particular individual, who is for him merely a figurehead, but he will use the particular individual who may hold the office at the time in order to bring the office itself into derision and contempt. This will be his object. The officer, as under certain circumstances the judge also, may have to be exposed to public contumely in order to bring ridicule upon his position. Nowadays posts of authority we upheld by dignities, and their overthrow will naturally be accompanied by “indignities”.

But, some may perhaps say, the destruction of all discipline involves Anarchism. True. But the destruction of all military discipline, and for that matter of all that which is now understood by the word “discipline,” will still leave room for that voluntary discipline which we may call the “discipline of Socialism.” This discipline Anarchists repudiate, but Socialists hold to as their sheet anchor. We are certainly no upholders of a sentimental liberty of the individual. We consider that the individual who actively opposed himself to the new order may easily become an obstacle to be suppressed at all costs. On the other hand, the Socialist recognises that he has no right .to coerce an individual into actively supporting even Socialism. Such support must be voluntary. Socialism will never do as the “Vaterland” or the “Patrie” now does, namely, compel the individual to serve in its wars of offence and defence without his consent and even against his will. Every man who will voluntarily enter upon the service of the Social-Democracy will voluntarily engage to submit himself to the reasonable discipline of those who, by the consent of the majority of the party, administer its affairs for the time being. The new order of things will not, as many people imagine, involve slavery or subjection, seeing that the supposed slave or subject himself will be in every case a consulted party, and will have in every case his appropriate share of the much dreaded “authority.” No; Socialism does not certainly imply the absolute autonomy of every individual, his power to do just as he likes in all things, but neither on the other hand does it imply his arbitrary subjection to the will of another, which is the essence of slavery. In short, the individual will be forcibly prevented from doing that which is injurious to society, but he will not be compelled to take part in any enterprise to which, or to the conditions of which, he has not in the first instance freely given his consent.

Such are the limits of the “discipline of Socialism.”


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 5.6.2004