Duncan Hallas

Armed without an army

(September 1985)

Book review, Socialist Worker Review, No.79, September 1985, p.32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Swiss Army
John McPhee
Faber and Faber £8.95

THE FIRST congress of the Second International in 1889 addressed itself to the question of militarism:

‘It opposed outright the institution of standing armies as ... “itself a threat to peace, incompatible with any democratic and republican regime, an instrument of reactionary coups d’etat and social repression”. It called for the replacement of standing armies by a popular militia.’ (Braunthal, History of the International).

This is a profoundly revolutionary demand, entirely free from pacifist illusions and its realisation, one might think, incompatible with the very existence of a capitalist state.

And yet there is an example of it today. From its (extremely violent) inception, the Swiss Confederation has never had a standing army, has relied entirely on an armed and trained population. Switzerland is undoubtedly a class society, undoubtedly capitalist. A serious study of how this combination has been possible would be very valuable to revolutionaries.

Unfortunately, the present book is not such a study. Written in the style of a travelogue, uncritically enthusiastic about all things Swiss, it is remarkably short on hard facts, let alone substantial analysis. Nevertheless something can be gleaned from it.

Switzerland has a population of 6,343,000, roughly the same as that of Greater London, and an army of 650,000 men – bigger than the total strength of the British armed forces. Every male Swiss citizen is required to serve for 30 years. The initial training period is 17 weeks followed by annual retraining and exercises to the age of 50. If women were required to serve (they are not), the Swiss could put well over a million troops into the field!

Nor is this in any sense a toy army. Its weaponry is well up to the best contemporary standards and training and discipline are reputedly good. The mobilisation system requires that small arms and a standard issue of ammunitions are kept at home.’ There are six hundred thousand assault rifles in Swiss homes,’ McPhee tells us and he adds, with astonishment, ‘Communist Swiss soldiers keep rifles and machine guns at home.’ There are not, however, many Swiss communists – that is a condition for the survival of the militia system. Heavy weapons, including aircraft and missiles, are widely dispersed in locations necessarily known to the population.

It is worth noting, for the benefit of advocates of gun control laws, that this, the most heavily armed population in the world (with a large number of private weapons as well as army issue) has one of the lowest incidences of gunshot wounds, including both deliberate and accidental shootings.

How is all this possible? A full account would have to take into consideration the peculiar history of the Confederation, the international role of Swiss capital (depending for its protection on foreign standing armies) and a number of other things. But one factor stands out above all others.

Switzerland has, for practical purposes, a largely non-citizen working class. The bulk of manual work is done by foreign workers who have no right of residence, no votes – and no guns. The national militia is the armed middle class (including the farmers – 49 percent of the population was still rural in 1978).

Nevertheless, it is a standing demonstration of how, in an industrial country, a workers’ state will have as its core an armed and trained working class.


Last updated on 27.12.2003