Democracy and Military Service. Jean Jaurès 1907

Chapter X.
Militarism and Democracy.

But we have still to answer the vital question: “Will the artisans and peasants of France care to make the army success?”

“If the proletariat is hostile, or even merely sulky and aloof, we shall get no improvement. Under those circumstances, any change will then end in one of two things; either national defence will break down altogether, and we shall be at the mercy of any sudden attack from without, for else we shall get an armed oligarchy, all the more dangerous because, under a veneer of democracy, the propertied classes will in fact still keep their privileged position in .the army; the foolish indifference of the people will leave them sole masters of the machinery of war and of repression.

“Why then should not the proletariat, from its own point of view, in its own spirit, and in proportion to its growing power, undertake the great task of military organization and national defence? I know very well that a confused anti-militarism (or even anti-patriotism) is often preached in such a way as to fill this problem with muddles and misunderstandings. But that affords only a stronger reason for stating the question plainly; and I am convinced that any accurate analysis of the problem will show the necessity of constituting a New Army through the intervention of the proletariat. And when I say necessity, I speak of what is necessary not only for nation, but for society and for the proletariat also; not merely a French necessity, but a revolutionary necessity .... The question is not, how far the proletariat has hitherto revolted against the army in its present form, and as at present employed; nor even, how far it has revolted against the idea of patriotism as conceived by reactionary politicians. We need not ask whether some of the proletariat, carried away by anger or misled by formulas which are only half-truths, have gone so far as to repudiate every form of army, even popular and defensive, and every form of Fatherland, even when pacific and just. What we are really concerned with, in the present state of the world and at the political and social level which the French nation has now reached, is a very different question. Does the proletariat now judge that its duty and its interest require it to undertake the necessary reorganization of the army in a democratic and popular sense? Will it thus become, under far-reaching and clearly-expressed rules of justice and peace, the most vigilant guardian of this gradually-transformed Fatherland? It must intervene, and as soon as possible, for the security of France, without which security there can be no freedom of social evolution in the country.”

It is no good meeting this with a vague cry of “militarism!” “The workmen and socialists reproach the army with being a tool in the hands of the bourgeoisie; an instrument of repression at home and of adventure abroad. And, in actual fact, it is only an instrument. The army has no force of its own, no will of its own, no policy of its own. It is, at least in France, the servant of the civil authority. Even when it commits odious excess, even when it violates the Constitution, threatens or crushes liberty, shoots upon the people, — even then, it acts not on the initiative of its own officers, nor for its own direct interest. In Spain or Turkey or Greece, the army makes revolutions of its own accord, for good or for evil. In France, the army is only a tool in the conflict of social forces. The great French Revolution was a civilian revolution, and it has given its own impress to all succeeding history. The grenadiers who put Napoleon on the throne were not working for the profit of a caste. Bonaparte’s elevation had been rendered possible by a long-drawn faction-fight in which the political parties had exhausted themselves, and in which the army had taken no part whatever. Bonaparte himself affected to stand above and outside the army; and his success was at least as disquieting to his fellow-soldiers as it was to the revolutionaries who remained faithful to the Republic.”

Jaurès proceeds to show in detail that neither the reaction of 1830, nor the coup d'etat by which Napoleon III came to the throne, nor the bloody scenes which accompanied the repression of the Commune in 1871, nor Boulanger’s dangerous attempt to make himself Dictator, were really due to the initiative of the army or worked in the interests of the army. Only the Dreyfus case, he argues was “really a crisis of militarism.”

“Here we have really the army working for its own interests, to shield its own culprits and to maintain its own authority; an army striving proudly for domination and attempting to impose its own law on the country. And this phenomenon was all the more startling because, in fact, it was new in France; and because, coming after 30 years of Republicanism, it seemed to belie and to mock the whole educative virtue of republican rule .... But the really striking thing is that the republican democracy, taken aback for a moment by this apparently formidable assault, pulled itself together and found immense resources at its disposal. It was the democracy which, to a great extent, bore the responsibility of the peril in which it found itself; for it began by showing signs of weakness. If certain statesmen, who had at least a glimpse of the truth, had been brave enough to tell it while yet there was time; if the Radical party had not shown a first a lack of general firmness and insight, this militarist crisis would have been a fiasco from the first. Another striking fact, which bears witness to the force of the civil tradition in our Republican democracy, is this: even in the turbid atmosphere, thick with lies and blind fury, which the army and its nationalist champions had then created; this army did not risk a single decisive action or definite enterprise. Its chiefs confined themselves to quibbles, tricks, forgeries and threats ..... Here again, therefore truth and justice and Republican liberty won after all.”

And the victory would have been even more complete, but for the timidity of middle-class Radicalism.

“It was these Republican and Radical middle-classes who sanctioned the abolition of territorial recruiting, for fear of an intermingling of Army and Nation which would force more rapid social changes upon the country.”

“At this present moment it is not the actual force of the military machine which is stopping the progress of democracy. It is rather the democracy, (still more than half-paralysed by the selfish influences of a timid middle class), which is stopping or slackening the necessary evolution of military institutions. And all French history — especially since the Revolution — may be summed up, so far as it concerns the relations of army and democracy, in the following two facts: the army in France is a subordinate force; at no moment does it constitute a controlling force. But, in consequence of its actual machinery; the working of which is far too free from the action of popular will, the army is a tool that comes too easily to the hands of the repressing power; and, in the long run, it constitutes a sort of close administration, whose corporate spirit develops in militarism.

“Therefore, military institutions are a tool which democracy can wield; and if the proletariat, developing its action upon democracy, interferes to transform the army — if in the army thus transformed it takes an active part, — then it runs no risk of being caught in a machine stronger than itself, which would distort its will. Therefore, let not Labour fear to strive for a really national and popular army, instead of our present army with its half-national and democratic, half-professional and oligarchic character. Let it strive for an army which cannot be turned against the rights of the working-classes and against their wish for peace.

“Let not Labour fear to seek and exercise the greatest possible share of command in the army, in order to ensure its popular working in accordance with the popular spirit which will have created it. Let not the proletariat say that it would thus shoulder the responsibilities of those bloody repressions which wound the working-classes in social conflicts. If this objection were valid, then working-men, socialists, democrats, would refuse to serve, not only as officers, but also as privates, for privates also are exposed to become the tools of capitalist repression against the proletariat on strike or in revolt: or rather, it is as privates that the working-men are most helpless. As lieutenants or sergeants they can soften the rigour of the orders they receive, mitigate the brutal bluntness of commands, and keep order by prudent and conciliatory methods rather than by provocation. Privates, on the contrary, when a clear order casts then into a brutal conflict, are often obliged either to risk flat disobedience, or passively to execute the order of violence or murder. If therefore, for fear of being employed as tools of capitalist policy, the proletariat and the socialists refuse to become officers in this new army, logic would compel them to oppose every form of universal military service, and to leave the formidable monopoly of armed force either to paid troops or to African contingents, or to a middle-class civil guard, with every responsibility for repressive interference in social conflicts. But the whole instinct, the whole thought of the working-classes, in every country, goes in the contrary direction.[1] Everywhere it is the workmen and socialists who demand military service for all. Just as they cannot admit that the middle-classes should buy themselves off from this burden, so they would not permit the working-classes to be cast forth from the army like the helots in Sparta and the slaves in Rome, leaving the middle-classes, like a fortress bristling with rifles and guns, to look down upon a vast proletariat dispensed from military service and enslaved. Even in the army as it is to-day, where they risk subjection to terrible orders, the working-classes wish to bear their part. They know well that they do not enter the army as a solid class; they know well that they are not yet strong enough, politically or socially, to grasp the enormous: military machine; they know that, under uniform, they are exposed to do the work of a privileged State still too much enslaved to middle-class capitalism. But the workmen know also that, if they wish to act upon the army, it must be from within; they know that it is a source of strength to the proletariat to bear arms even under the command of the bourgeois State. They know that the proletarian and socialist spirit, with which the mass of artisans and peasants is inoculating the army, does sometimes act in spite of all. They know that the authorities themselves, in spite of their bullyings and their law-codes have to reckon with this mass of armed workmen, and that the armed democracy would not be a tool fit for every design. Even if the proletariat, for a long time still, could find no force but its force of inertia, yet this sullen resistance is sometimes almost invincible. And this is not all. In great and tragic upheavals, would not the proletariat thus be better prepared to use every chance, being already lodged in such masses at the very heart of the capitalist citadel? This being so, it would be a madness to neglect accepting nay rather, seeking out — every possible command in the army popularized according to my proposals. Even at the cost of tragic difficulties and terrible responsibilities, organized Labour must furnish as many officers as possible for the new army.

“The capitalist policy of repression and force will be all the more difficult, in proportion as its words of command find it impossible to reach this democratic army otherwise than through a whole series of officers of whom many will sympathize with the workmen. Or rather, this policy of systematic violence on the part of Government will become almost impossible; and workmen-officers, or socialist officers, will have nothing worse to fear than those chance incidents which crop up during strikes and which may suddenly pledge their responsibilities. They may be caught as officers in this dilemma, which in itself is bad enough, either to allow the crowd, over-excited by suffering, to commit acts of violence against property or persons, which the crowd itself would regret to-morrow, else to forestall such disorderly assaults by an interference which might suddenly produce effects unforeseen ad undesired, under the chance working of strife and wrath. This risk is serious, no doubt, but what would even this risk be, (even if it were then as great as it is to-day), compared with the immense interest which the proletariat has in gradually assimilating the army to itself? And, in fact, this risk will decrease from day to day. The chances of brutal and bloody conflict between the army and the workmen must diminish daily and at last disappear. They must disappear, and they will.

“To begin with, it is clear enough that this broadly popular organization of the army will not be an isolated fact in French politics. It will be a necessary part of the great social policy. It will be part of a very vast programme in which every class hangs together. Many measures will be adopted at the same time (or even before), which, by mitigating the sufferings of the people, will forestall those explosions of despair and instinctive revolt which still mingle sometimes with popular claims for justice. Give the workmen real insurance against they risks of life. Insure them against the consequences of sickness, unemployment, breakdown, and old age. Let them not join the strike with a heart already embittered by excessive suffering, by repeated crises of distress and misery, and by daily insecurity. Give the workman’s child a chance of getting some real schooling. Let him stay at school long enough to carry away a modicum of knowledge which will really stay with him through life, and beyond this, a craving for more knowledge, which would prompt him to more methodical and reflective action. Limit the working-hours by law, and so give the workman enough leisure to get both family life and open-air life, which are two forces of serenity and moral balance. Make an immense effort, by the combined action of the State and the parishes, to give the working multitude (who are too often crowded in hovels or preyed upon by usurious rents), healthy lodgings at possible prices. In all so-called home industries, in which the working-folk cannot defend themselves by organization, and under whose deep shadow undreamt-of miseries are accumulated, with their own heritage of silent despair and implacable rancour, follow the example of England with her vigorous development, and give a legal minimum of wages.

“Let there not be one existence ignored, lost, left alone with its mortal resignation or furious revolt, and ready at any crisis to pour its overflowing wrath and hatred into street riots. Let there not be, in our complicated society, a single miserable corner unvisited by some ray of social justice, some particle of the great mutual guarantee, and some light of new hope. Be brave enough to forbid the poisonous liquors which madden the people. Control and reduce, by a State monopoly, the consumption of alcohol. Furnish your schools with medical inspection on the watch for the first symptoms of hereditary defects, and ready to forestall their consequences. Fortify thus the nervous equilibrium of the working-classes. Give them confidence in the force of legal progress; and in attractive combinations by which working-men can gain access as a class, as one collective organism, to the great mass of modern property. Trace broad and clear avenues before the people: no quibbles, no tricks. Do not seize upon the pretext of some single gesture, immediately disavowed by the wiser comrades, of some coarse and brutal speech, which has even more thoughtless clumsiness in it than hatred, to suppress in time of strike that collective action which is the absolute condition of success for the working-classes.

“And, in return for this effort of justice on the part of the Republic, it must be the duty of the proletariat freely to organize and discipline itself. It will also be its interest. It has nothing really to gain by putting its claims into brutal forms. It is under no figure of savagery that proletarian civilization ought to appear before the world. Acts of destruction do not only deceive humanity, still so mistrustful as to the real sense and value of socialist thought, which is destined to show itself a creation, an organism, a living order. They do more than this. They give the proletariat a momentary illusion of strength, and thus turn it aside from its search after true strength, which consists in vaster and vaster groupings, more and more methodical action. This, without blind optimism, we may assert that the proletariat is understanding better and better. The more widely a Trades Union is recruited, the more easily it can prevent, by the mere effect of its masses, and by the enveloping action of its moral force, those fatal quarrels which damage the only real property which the proletariat has yet been able to gain — the power of common action. This is no vain dream. Already in Germany and England and Belgium the conflicts between peop1e and soldiers have become very rare. For more than fifteen years, I think, England has not had a single bloody collision to deplore. Yet the Labour struggle has never slackened, and Labour energy has never failed. In France, the institution of a really popular army will be the sign and the consequence of a vast political and social movement, whose effect will be to give the people more guarantees and more self-control. Between the people and these soldiers who have mingled with popular life, between the proletariat and these officers of whom many will be closely bound to the proletariat, every conflict will appear as a scandal. On both sides a loyal effort will be made to prevent them, the officers seeking without provocation to secure respect for property and persons, while the proletariat will not only refrain from those violences which call for the interference of armed force, but will also be dispensed from every brutal action by the vigorous exercise of a very extensive and scrupulously-respected right at law. In these conditions the proletariat will have to ask whether it is willing to secure by its own action, to a great extent, the working of this New Army and the supply of officers for it. The people cannot hesitate to develop its strength in this transformed army, and it will not fear to fall into a trap by securing the independence of the nation, and by giving it the most efficient means of defence that are possible.

“I, for my part, have never taken anti-patriotic paradoxes too seriously. The Fatherland is not an outworn idea; it is one which is changing and growing greater. I have always been sure that the proletariat would not, in its heart of hearts, accept any doctrine of national abdication and servitude. To have revolted against despotic kings and against the tyranny of capitalism, and then to suffer quietly the yoke of conquest and the lordship of foreign militarism, would be a contradiction so childish and miserable that, at the first pinch, all instinct and-reason would rise up and sweep it away. It would monstrous if the proletariat consented to become the tributaries of a conqueror who would do nothing to deliver them from the yoke of capitalism. Never would a proletariat which had abandoned the defence of national independence — and therefore, of its own free development — never would such a proletariat find vigour enough to conquer capitalism; having unresistingly suffered the invader’s yoke to be added to that of the capitalist, it would never raise its head again. Those Frenchmen (if any still exist) who say they don’t care whether they live under the German or the French militarist — under the helmeted soldier or the capitalist President — are guilty of a sophism too absurd for refutation. And when they are answered (as they often are) by an appeal to the special claims of France, to the generosity of her history and the services she has rendered to mankind, then this answer also is a sophism, for it justifies only the patriotism of the French, and implies that other European countries have not just as good a right to the independence and devotion of their citizens.

“The fact is that, wherever there are countries — that is to say, historic groupings conscious of continuity and of unity — every attack upon their liberty and integrity is an attack upon civilization and a relapse into barbarism. To say that workmen, being already mere serfs of capitalism, could suffer no worse servitude through invasion or conquest, is simply childish. The capitalist and middle-class domination which reigns everywhere is a natural and necessary effect of economic development. Capitalism is not immortal; and, by raising up a proletariat which becomes daily vaster and better organized, capitalism is itself fashioning the force which is destined to take its place. .... The workmen recognize (if not clearly, at least dimly) behind the will and the commands of capitalist chiefs, the existence of vast impersonal laws which dominate a whole period of history, and are often far stronger than the men who direct them .... This is proved by the following fact. In democratic countries like the U.S.A., Britain, or France, the mass of wage-earners could, if they would, drive out the capitalist minority from their property. They would only need to exercise their legal powers; and capital has no guard which could stop them. But they dare not: or, rather, they never dream of making the attempt. Yet, on the other hand, suppose that a country had only to go to the poll and record its votes, in order to get .rid of an invading army which weighed upon its territory. In that case, the invaders would vanish as rapidly as darkness vanishes before the searchlight.”

1. Jaurès of course recognizes the exception of Great Britain though he doubts whether we shall long maintain this exceptional position. See Chapter XV below. — Editor.